A TENDER THING, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, 2012
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian
At the age of 28, Ben Power has become the most in-demand script-doctor in the country. As literary associate for Headlong Theatre, he has overseen provocative rewrites, including the insertion of the Chapman brothers into Marlowe's Dr Faustus, and a version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author set in a reality TV studio. His debut Royal Shakespeare Company commission is a radical Romeo and Juliet that depicts the characters in old age. Though the words are all Shakespeare's, the scenes have been shuffled and speeches reattributed to produce a wistful meditation on an enduring – though apparently childless – marriage. Such an approach runs the risk of becoming a pointless game of consequences. There was, after all, a reason why Shakespeare chose not to write the story of Hamlet's decisive reign or King Lear's comfortable retirement. Yet the deaths of the star-cross'd lovers does feel horribly premature; and Power's ingenious reorganisation grants them the maturity they are otherwise denied. That it pays off so handsomely is not simply due to Power's creative mastery of cut-and-paste, but to an entrancingly spare production by Helena Kaut-Howson that so fleetingly skips through its shifts of mood and logic you wonder if you might be dreaming it. The illusion is further enhanced by Neil Murray's animated design of floating gauzes and the Debussyian textures of John Woolf's chamber score. But what really makes it is the profound pathos and weary humour of the performances. Forbes Masson makes Romeo's visit to the apothecary even more heart-rending within the context of assisted suicide; Kathryn Hunter's Juliet has the frail figure of an old woman but the playful soul of a child. She climbs up on a chair for the balcony speech, only to discover she can't get down again; her besotted admission that "I have forgotten why I did call thee back" exudes the genuine puzzlement of elderly forgetfulness. Power cannot quite resist the temptation to over elaborate, though: the song O Mistress Mine is imported from Twelfth Night seemingly only in order to furnish Hunter with a sardonic laugh on the line "Come and kiss me sweet and 20". But concluding with the lover's first meeting is a masterstroke. You may think that, having written these scenes, Shakespeare would have the best opinion as to what order to put them in. But then, what did Shakespeare know?