Review: Cruel and Tender (Canadian Stage)

Canadian Stage presents Martin Crimp’s play Cruel and Tender directed by Atom Egoyan at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Cruel and Tender is British playwright Martin Crimp’s contemporary adaptation of Sophocles’ Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis), a tale of love, jealousy and deceit between Greek hero Heracles, his wife Deianeira and lole, daughter of the king of Euboas, a city captured by Heracles. 

In Cruel and Tender Crimp updates the ancient Greek tragedy and sets it against the political climate of the world today. The overthrow of dictators, child soldiers in armed tribal conflicts, and the use of the threat of terrorism as justification for committing brutal atrocities in an imperialist war are all subjects he touches upon.

However, the play isn’t entirely about politics, it also focuses on the personal side of war and examines the psychological aspects and personal motivations that lead to war.

The production marks the return of Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan to the Canadian stage after a 20-year absence. This project also affords him an opportunity to work with his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian who stars as Amelia, the modern-day Deianeira.

Amelia is the most compelling character to watch as she teeters on the brink of insanity. She alternates between worrying for her husband (Daniel Kash), referred to only as “The General,” and fits of jealousy as she discovers that Laela (Abena Malika), the young African girl her husband has sent to their home, is her husband’s lover and the motivation behind his rogue rampage which has completely annihilated Laela’s village.

Jeff Lillico also turns in a solid performance as Amelia’s brooding son James, as do Nigel Shawn Williams as the seedy government official Jonathan and Daniel Kash as The General who suffers from a mix of illness-induced delusion and post-traumatic stress disorder when we finally meet him near the end of the play.

Debra Hanson’s production design provides an interesting visual backdrop for the play. The action takes place on a large hangar-like set done all in white. The set design evokes the sterility of a hospital or mental institution. The blank canvas walls also serve as a projection screen for the show’s occasional video elements.

The projections are most effective in the scene near the end of the play where a live video feed from a camera manipulated by one of the characters is projected onto the set as a backdrop to the live action. It’s done in a documentary/cable TV news style and is an interesting commentary on the immediacy and access we have to world events in our connected age.

Cruel and Tender is smart, satirical and thought-provoking. It makes its political statements without proselytizing and speaks to the political climate of the world today.


  • Cruel and Tender is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E) through February 18, 2012
  • Shows run Monday-Saturday, 8PM; Wednesday, 1:30PM; Saturday, 2PM
  • Tickets $22.00 to $99.00
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.368.3110, in person at the box office or visit

Photo credit: Arsinée Khanjian and Abena Malika in Cruel and Tender. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

3 thoughts on “Review: Cruel and Tender (Canadian Stage)”

  1. I just saw it and i must be honest and say it is the worst stage play ive ever seen in my 37 years of watching theater. It tries so hard and it fails everywhere. The lead actress who happens to be the wife of the director is the worst actress in the world and she kept screaming her lines from start to finish. Pointless converstions abound and inconguent parallelisms. The plot is so bad i see many people dozing off halfway the show. it is a waste of money. Trash theater of the lowest caliber!!!

  2. I shall be honest as well, and confirm that the woman to my left nodded off twice, that is until the son returned and started shouting. The vast space is used very strangely; the stairs looked like a boarding ladder rolled out onto the tarmac at an airport. The chandelier which glowed intensely at times, the curious symbolic drain in the living space were most perplexing. On the plus side, Nigel Shawn Williams was excellent and had the best lines.

  3. I saw Cruel and Tender on Friday the 29th, and enjoyed the experience very much. This is not a light play and requires a certain degree of engagement and intelligence on the audience’s part. The plot and purpose is not handed to you on a plate, and there is little if any comic relief. It is not surprising then that people would leave bitterly disappointed. But to me the complexity of emotion and conflict that is expressed is illuminating. That a decorated general and his very powerful wife are not able to control anything of value in their own lives, only the superficial, is a universal message to us all. Especially in war. We can not control war and the consequence are lives lost, both literally and figuratively.

    This was achieved through a tightly conceived vision and execution on behalf of the actors, director and design team.

    I do have one major criticism of “translating” this play into Canadian. Because as a British play, I believe it was intended to work more effectively in context of the English repression of emotion and strict need to keep up appearances in conjunction with their history as an imperial power. The character Amelia would have had much more tension to work with and could have unravelled in a more compelling fashion.

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