Cruel and Tender, written by Martin Crimp, one of Britain’s foremost playwrights, and directed by Canada’s acclaimed film director, Atom Egoyan, has opened at Canadian Stage in Toronto. It’s an adaptation of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy The Trachiniae, written in 490 BCE. Crimp created this adaptation in 2004 because it resonated in a world seeking to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The Trachininae tells the story of Dejaneira, the wife of Hercules, who desperately misses her warrior husband who’s been fighting abroad. Survivors of Hercules’ attacks are brought to his home. Dejaneira discovers that Hercules laid siege to a city to obtain the king’s daughter as his mistress. So she decides to use a love potion given to her by the centaur Nessus to win back Hercules’ love. She sends her son to give the potion to his father. Her son returns home and tells her that Hercules is dying because the potion turned out to be poisonous. Ashamed of what she’s done, Dejaneira kills herself as Hercules arrives home weak and dying. The play concludes with Hercules being carried off to be burned alive, as an end to his suffering.
In Crimp’s version, the Dejaneira character is Amelia, played in this production by Arsinée Khanjian, while the Hercules character, portrayed by Daniel Kash, is known simply as The General.
Amelia lives a life of luxury but is anxious as she waits for news of her husband, The General, who is away in Africa, fighting a war. She sends her son James to seek his father and rejoices briefly when he brings back news that he’s alive, having won a great battle. But her mood soon changes when an old family friend, a government minister, brings home the spoils of war, a beautiful young woman named Laela. Yet it transpires that Laela is not only the last survivor of the war but her husband’s mistress and that the murder of the city’s inhabitants was not due to The General’s zeal but his lust for Laela. Amelia’s reaction to this news and the consequences of her retaliation drive the action of the play.
The Vietnam war. The Persian Gulf war. The war in Iraq. The revolution in Egypt. Sophocles used a myth to comment on his own time. Crimp updates the myth to illuminate ours - how politicians and the media maintain power by manipulating the truth. As Egoyan writes in a program note, “While aspects of the play seem ripped from today’s headlines, Cruel and Tender is also a powerful study of contemporary marriage. It looks at the web of relationships - between children, friends, professional associates, even past lovers - that swirl around any marriage, while providing an astute and critical study of contemporary warfare”.
The acting in this production is so uniformly good that it’s difficult to pick out any one actor for praise. But it must be said that Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian, is the emotional centre of the play and is convincing in her portrayal of the lonely and volatile Amelia. Her acting so takes her out of herself that she becomes the character she plays - the hallmark of a great actor. Nigel Shawn Williams does a wonderful job of creating the character of Jonathan, a self-serving government minister, while Jeff Lillico’s portrayal of Amelia’s and The General’s son James, torn between his love for his father and the horror of his actions, is convincing. The play also stars Abena Malika as Laela and Daniel Kash as The General, while Brenda Robins, Sarah Williams and Cara Ricketts are a modern day Greek chorus. All are impressive in their roles.
Another success for the Canadian Stage Company, revitalized under artistic director Matthew Jocelyn.
Cruel and Tender plays now through February 18, 2012
at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East in Toronto
For tickets visit the box office, call 416 366 7723 or 1 800 708 6754
or book online here: https://www.canadianstage.com/Online