Pete Kirwan, Year of Shakespeare

Unlike the Olympics, the World Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have a Closing Ceremony. There is no grand climax, no image of Prospero/Shakespeare drowning his books and asking for our applause, not even a celebrity-studded event production. Instead, the last officially badged World Shakespeare Festival production to open was this: a two-hander played (on this occasion) to a half-full Swan Theatre; a free rearrangement of the text of an early tragedy; a revival of a play first performed three years ago; and an evening centred around a subject matter none more downbeat. Yet Ben Power’s A Tender Thing was also one of the Festival’s triumphs, a delicate and profound tale that gave us Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet turned inside out and upside down, yet also opened up the musicality and thematics of the play in an enlightening way.

The headline of A Tender Thing is the play replayed between lovers at the end of long lives rather than in the flush of youth. Almost all of the words were taken from Shakespeare’s play, with the obvious insertion of ‘What is love?’ from Twelfth Night and the occasional other external quotation. Words were, however, divorced from character and context and distributed freely between two pensioners reminiscing on a life and preparing for the next phase. Language and quotation juxtaposed to create an experience dissonantly familiar, the audience invited to simultaneously recognise and relearn meanings.

The plot that emerged was unavoidably and emotionally (to this reviewer) resonant of Richard Eyre’s remarkable Iris. After a too-brief glimpse of an elderly couple dancing and playing like children as if in the first flushes of romance, we saw Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet’s leg buckle, and she stumbled and fell into her dancing partner’s arms. Debilitated – by a stroke or some more wasting disease – the audience were then privy to a sequence of intensely private scenes as the couple attempted to deal with her increasing physical helplessness, moving from a gammy arm that struggled to pick up a dropped photo album to an inability to lift, wash or feed herself. Audible sniffs could be heard around the auditorium from ten minutes in, only growing over the subsequent hour.

Hunter was outstanding in a physically and emotionally demanding role. From the moment of her first collapse, she was required to manually adjust her arm, which defaulted to a painfully strained and useless position at her side. Her voice became increasingly low and measured as she struggled to articulate consonants, and her leg dragged behind her. While still able to walk, she moved in limping, disjointed steps that could take her only a few metres before another collapse, as in one early scene where she threw down her stick, strode out and fell almost immediately onto her face. Yet this was no mere facsimile of disability. Hunter’s triumph was to maintain communication and expression even while appearing to be partially paralysed. Her eyes were wide and imploring, her stuttering mouth clear in its intent if not in its words. As the food Romeo carefully spooned to her fell out of her mouth, she looked up at him in desperation, shame and love.

One of the most extraordinary moments saw her, at a key point, suddenly leap out of her wheelchair. The lights changed to a spotlight and a figure who had become increasingly frail over the previous half hour danced for her life. Her legs flew out, her balance was precise, her body supple and flexible as she flung herself across the wheelchair, leaned back, stretched and reached for the heavens, before meekly returning to her chair, resuming her state and gazing in pain up at her husband. This short moment, capturing the spiritual and mental freedom that Juliet felt while trapped within her body, was beautiful in itself but also spoke to Shakespeare’s heroine’s own entrapment, Power’s play preserving the striving for release.

Richard McCabe’s affable Romeo was heartbreaking in a performance again reminiscent of Jim Broadbent’s in Iris . He was lovably daft in his early scenes as he donned a suit, danced privately, sneaked up on his fabulously dressed date and cheekily tried to put his hands on her breasts. Later, he gathered plants, then removed his knee pads and sat in a comfortable armchair to sift through a photo album. His character, unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo, was a paragon of stability, the kindly man living entirely for his love. In McCabe’s voice, Romeo was the bumbling romantic, rarely forgetting the dated transistor radio playing Ruiz’s ‘Sway’ and a red rose, a series of gestures that, in one of Juliet’s final mobile moments, she attempted to recreate.

It was Romeo’s patience that shone through. Over a sequence of detailed, precise scenes he picked her up, held her, washed her carefully, swung her gently, laid her down and, most often, danced with her in his arms. The same dance that they shared together early in the play became the motif of their love, returned to even in the midst of their ablutions, becoming a shared memory that broke through during her washing where the two caught each other’s eye and shared a tender kiss, their affection undiminished. Yet we also saw the strain that he felt himself under, at one moment snapping and shouting at her as she babbled, and then at other moments sitting and quietly weeping.

Helena Kaut-Howson’s production was set against Jacques Collin’s remarkable videos and Mike Compton’s evocative music design (punctuated with John Woolf’s music). Around the edges of the stage were glimpses of sand and shells (revealing, towards the play’s end, the small purple vial of poison). The repeated three-dimensional motif was of waves crashing against a shore, the epic backdrop running onto the edges of waves lapping around the feet of the actors, and at one point becoming a whirlpool threatening to engulf them. The obvious symbolism of time eroding lives was made local by images of a young couple at the seashore. Juliet’s early appearance dancing for Romeo in a bathing costume evoked a nostalgia for carefree times that extended the sense of slippage of time backwards as well as forwards, their entire lives captured in these final moments.

While some may have been tempted to play the game of spotting the transpositions of famous lines (perhaps most evocatively, Juliet moaning that her illness ”twill serve’), there was little self-consciousness in Power’s arrangement. Instead, lines and situations fell naturally into place, upsettingly as Juliet took over the Nurse’s lines about her lost daughter. A picture of a beautiful young girl faded in and out on the screen, leaving us with fragments of a story half told, a montage of memories and loose ends that Juliet physically thrashed to hold onto even as she lost control of her body. The reliving of immediate memories saw Romeo use his umbrella to pull Juliet around in her wheelchair to their song, dancing as long as they could until her choking forced a premature end.

As the production moved towards its close, the pathos moved towards, while staying on the right side of, melodrama. The two shared a bed, and as Juliet awoke and prepared to take her ‘medicine’ it was Romeo who asked if she would be gone, the line becoming a play for a few more final moments. As she slipped away, Romeo followed in anguish, curling up with her and taking the last of the poison. We were treated to a dreamlike coda, the two awaking in turn and the video screen changing to a golden field. The two met again, sharing the play’s famous sonnet as they encountered one another as if in a dream. Without resolving their sense of the reality of their encounter, they instead took hands and walked away together towards the fields. It was a sombre but fittingly cyclical close to both play and festival, a return to the beginning and a reliving of meetings rather than an iteration of farewells.

© Helena Kaut-Howson 2021