As we left Tender last night at Metro Arts, the friend I took (who’s also a reviewer) turned to me and said: “I don’t envy you on this one”. She knows as well as I do that it’s never easy to write a negative review.
Tender wasn’t terrible, it certainly wasn’t the worst thing I have ever seen. It was just…ineffective. Un-moving. It never reached the heights of intensity that it so desperately wanted to.
The main problem lay in the script (written by Nicki Bloom). Written in a hyper-real, abstract voice, it asks the actors to speak with rapid-fire dialogue, often finishing each other’s sentences and cutting across each other. But rather than heightening the tension for the audience, this style just alienates us. It seems designed to make us constantly aware that we’re watching a play, and that we shouldn’t empathise with these actors as real people.
Which is a strange choice, given that the themes Tender tackles are so personal and emotional.
Young married couple Sarah (Kathryn Marquet) and Michael (Peter Cook) are deeply in love and seem to have an idyllic future in front of them. That is until “something” happens to Michael while he and Sarah are out on a date. He disappears and Sarah is left with no memory of what has occurred, much to the anguish of Michael’s adoring parents Yvonne (Andrea Moor) and Patrick (Peter Knapman).
Scenes switch between the past (before the “something”), the present (after) and an eerie, surreal time in which Sarah still imagines Michael to be alive. But is he a ghost? Or a memory? Is Sarah mad? Or a murderer? To be honest, by the end it’s sort of hard to care, and the play offers no real answers anyway.
I don’t think that, as an audience, we always need everything to be “finished” and tied up nicely with a big bow. We don’t necessarily need happy endings or shocking revelations. What we do need is reasons, tension, change: a glimpse into the secret lives of the characters and an understanding of why they behave in a certain way. The script never gives us that.
The saving grace of Tender is that director Andrea Moor and lighting designer Jason Glenwright have made some very solid choices in its staging.
The stage is completely stark, with a bench as the only set piece. Plastic lining hangs from the ceiling and acts as a screen for some quite intense, fractured, projected images. Composer Phil Hagstrom has created some powerful music to accompany these images, and together they provide some truly scary moments.
The lighting is cleverly designed, and it’s an essential part of the audience understanding whether a scene is happening in the past, the present or in Sarah’s imagination. The past is lit with golden, happy light, the present is a dull yellow and the surreal sections are lit with a watery, almost alien green colour.
The acting is solid as well, although I felt the actors struggled with the dialogue style as much as the audience did. You could almost see them waiting for the next moment of interruption rather than being fully invested in the moments of the scene.
Kathryn Marquet does her best to add brusque charm to Sarah, but honestly, she’s not a very appealing character (none of them are). In the present, with no memory of what has happened, she’s confused, angry, defensive, with no hope of redemption or release. In the past she’s obsessed and consumed with her love for Michael. I saw Marquet in La Boite’s The White Earth in 2009 and I know she is an exceptional and powerful actor, and it’s disappointing to see her in such a strange, unfinished role.
There’s not very much for Peter Cook to work with as Michael. He’s a figment of Sarah’s imagination one minute, a real man the next. The chemistry between Marquet and Cook is fairly lacklustre too: the dialogue is so unrealistic that you can never truly feel love between them. And because of that, it’s impossible to feel his loss so keenly, and to despair that we never know what happened to him.
Peter Knapman had only one or two lines in the “past” scenes, where we see him as a contented father and husband. In the present, we see a broken man, a man who has lost everything but doesn’t even have the energy left to care. Knapman is good, he looks downtrodden and lost for most of the play, but to really make our hearts go out to him, we needed to see more of what he was like in the past, to see the contrast between the man he was and the man he has become after the loss of his son.
Andrea Moor may have opened herself up to criticism for choosing to direct and act in Tender, but I actually think it was one of her best directorial decisions. Her Yvonne is the most fleshed out character, and Moor handles the dialogue better than anyone to inject some realism into it. She’s excellent as the “matriarch”, a woman who feels a passionate love for her child, something akin to envy when he is “taken away” by another woman and a bitter fury when he is completely taken away from her.
I’ve been having a love affair with Metro Arts this year (Single Admissions and The Timely Death of Victor Blott have been two of the best plays I’ve ever seen), and it’s sad to have that love wane a little with Tender. But I’m looking forward to getting back to Metro soon, to write a more positive review.
Metro Arts & …and moor theatre present
by Nicki Bloom
Venue: Metro Arts, 109 Edward Street, Brisbane
Preview: 29 June 7.30pm
Dates: 30 June - 17 July, Tuesday - Saturday
Tickets: $20/16 Concession, $12 Groups & Preview
Bookings: 3002 7100 | www.metroarts.com.au