Theatre review A Tender Thing
a tender thing
project arts centre, dublin
"Let us dwell not on our present woes my love, but on the years gone," says an aged Juliet, played by Olwen Fouéré, to her bespectacled and equally aged Romeo (pictured). And yet, in Selina Cartmell's production of Ben Power's 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, this is pretty much all they do.
By 'present woes', Juliet's referring to the terminal illness from which she begs Romeo to release her.
Romeo's against it, but then succumbs and swigs the poison himself over Juliet's duvet-covered corpse.
Every generation adapts and reinterprets Shakespeare according to taste, but if Ben Power is the future of Shakespeare adaptation, we're in big trouble. One thing Shakespeare isn't is a single-issue playwright, but this is what British theatre's foremost script-doctor's cut-and-paste job on Romeo and Juliet reduces him to. The single issue being one of today's hot topics: assisted dying.
The idea of showing the young 'star-crossed lovers' in old age has a modicum of interest, though it would work better as a comic treatment rather than having the aged pair pining and repining over each other in what looks like a three-star hotel bedroom in Torquay. (Perhaps Basil Fawlty could drop in with the vial of poison? Why not? Power once inserted the Chapman Brothers into Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.)
The only plus in Power's rearranging of the play is that we get so many beautiful speeches, or at least snatches of speeches, one after the other. There's also the novelty of contrast between the exalted poetic language and the aged lovers' domestic activities: Romeo pottering around with a tea tray or Juliet doing things in the bathroom.
But the novelty wears off quickly and claustrophobia takes over. When Juliet becomes sick, their love, however beautiful and ardent, becomes a nauseating spectacle of self-engrossment, a travesty of the play if ever there was one.
There's certainly technical deftness in Powers' rearrangement of the play into a duel between the lovers, Juliet insisting that while she wants to be put out of her pain she wants him to live on, and find a new love: "take some new infection to thine eye!" But without context, it's emotion in a void, a Shakespearean storm in a teacup.
For Shakespeare, love is no 'tender thing,' it "looks on tempests and is never shaken". In Cartmell's ironically sentimental and overstated production, this translates as Romeo undeterred from changing a crippled Juliet's underwear in the bathroom in full view of the audience.