A Tender Thing
Can an elderly Romeo and Juliet ever escape their destiny?
Owen Roe plays a stoic Romeo, Olwen Fouéré a drifting Juliet
A Tender Thing
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
In Ben Power’s ingenious reworking of Shakespeare’s play, which dismantles the text and reassembles its dialogue to tell another story, Romeo and Juliet have been given something long denied: the chance to grow old together.
It’s a brave conceptual gamble, to move the lovers from the poetic grandeur of doomed romance to the banality of everyday life. But while Power’s play for two performers narrows the scope, its gait is no less tragic. What’s in a text? The words themselves, however reconfigured, seem to carry an inexorable fate.
In Siren Productions’ beautiful and impressive staging, director Selina Cartmell attempts a reconciliation between the quotidian and the eternal. Her elderly couple belong to a life more ordinary, where Owen Roe’s stoic Romeo cares for Olwen Fouéré’s drifting Juliet, yet the production tips toward the otherworldly: Sinéad Wallace’s lights move from sepulchral glints to a majestic sunrise – sometimes at Romeo’s command – while Theme From a Summer Place seeps in like leaking anaesthetic. Monica Frawley’s set creates a stunningly intact, fusty bedroom, but appropriately seen through a huge tilted frame.
Power and Cartmell may take a different route to Shakespeare, but they are heading to near enough the same destination. If Romeo and Juliet is about love and death, that also drives A Tender Thing. At its most successful, the play presents this as an endless cycle – Romeo and Juliet are still wooing, still worrying, seemingly in stasis. “Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?” asks Romeo once again, but now because Juliet is in a doddery reverie.
Just as Shakespeare nuts will helplessly trace Power’s lines back to the original, it’s hard not to think about where these characters have come from. Romeo, the archetypal hothead, is now weighted with responsibility, and a well-judged Roe often confides with the audience directly. Juliet, Shakespeare’s blushing ingenue who found real mettle, is here alternately girlish, grieving, suffering or – more tragically - unreachable. A commanding Fouéré is stately and sensitive, and together they deliver loving performances – you feel for them. Yet as the play leads them on the grim and unsettling path towards assisted suicide, Cartmell becomes more ethereal and imagistic.
The divergence doesn’t quite work. A sequence in which Romeo cleans Juliet, a rarely depicted gesture of real care, comes buttressed with heavy religious iconography and a choral accompaniment, as though a starker action wasn’t enough. Some of Cartmell’s visual ideas are lucid and brilliant, such as the shifting significance of a rose, while others belong to a set vocabulary: glitterball fantasies, falling snow, a final, unwarranted voice-over. If it feels, ultimately, too hermetically sealed in an aesthetic to breathe easily, there is still a tragic echo that makes it more than worthwhile. Romeo and Juliet, no more than any of us, can never be free. Until February 15