A Tender Thing, Swan Stratford, 6 October 2012
Ben Power’s remarkable production was a reworking of the text of Romeo and Juliet with the central roles reimagined as a middle-aged couple. It utilised ambiguities in the original’s vocabulary and some of its specific references to age.
The Swan stage had bare, light blue boards up to a sandy downstage margin. A screen for projections hung in the arch. A freestanding door, which could be brought forward, and a bed were positioned upstage.
Richard McCabe was a portly, ebullient Romeo while Kathryn Hunter played a lithe, skittish Juliet. Kathryn Hunter’s body looked like a collection of parts reassembled in a new order, coincidentally the same process applied here to the text of the play.
The performance began with Romeo sat in a chair as a projection of the sea washed over him (Prologue). His first words were “Give me the light”, at which point the stage was lit and he moved upstage to where Juliet was lying ill in bed.
He continued to speak of the “detestable maw” and “tomb of death” taken from 5.3 where Romeo is addressing Juliet’s apparently lifeless body in the Capulet tomb. This was edited to remove the references to Tybalt, a crucial change so that Romeo spoke of “With And worms that are thy shalt be our chambermaids”.
Juliet rose from the bed and they danced together speaking lines taken from throughout the play, ending with Juliet’s “Give me thy hand”.
Romeo talked of his fervent love for Juliet using his lines addressed to Benvolio, lines spoken by Lady Capulet about Paris, as well as by Capulet about himself (Scene One).
He was quite chirrupy as a middle-aged man in love: “O heavy lightness! serious vanity!” Romeo sat in a chair stage right and handed a front row audience member his champagne flute. At “Read o’er the volume of her glorious face” he toured the front row showing them a photo of Juliet he kept in his wallet.
Juliet entered through the door causing Romeo to respond “But soft! What light through yonder doorway breaks!” Juliet rolled her eyes and went back out again. This was funny, but the comedy seemed to rely on this exchange being a joke consciously referencing the original play for humorous effect.
Once Juliet had gone, Romeo continued with that speech until Juliet re-entered. He remarked “It is my lady, O, it is my love” as Juliet sat in the chair silently taking the champagne glass that had been left with an audience member. She put her hand on her cheek, prompting Romeo’s comment “that I might touch that cheek!”
Juliet moved centre stage and began “Gallop apace…” with some alterations so that instead of “strange love, grown bold” she spoke of “young love, grown old”. She took his jacket from the back of the chair and put it on herself, which overwhelmed her as it was too big. But it was the next best thing to having him. This was characteristic of the textual tweaking to adapt the original to the age of the characters.
Romeo grasped her from behind and fondled her chest, to which she responded coyly “O gentle Romeo”. They reverted to an almost straight run-through of dialogue from the balcony scene. Juliet placed his jacket back on him and they seemed very tactile and in love.
Romeo swore by the moon, and Juliet asked “what satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” leading into an exchange partly based on fragments of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Juliet spoke the first seven lines of Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away.
This introduced a theme of ageing and yellowing leaves.
Romeo replied with the beginning of Sonnet 104:
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.
and part of Sonnet 102:
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
He also spoke some invented lines concluding with the modern sounding “The universe I see when I see you”.
Juliet left through the door but returned shortly afterwards.
The young Juliet’s forgetfulness in the balcony scene “I have forgot why I did call thee back” was comically transformed into this Juliet’s senior moment with Romeo jokingly promising to “stand here till thou remember it”. They eventually parted in “sweet sorrow”.
Romeo entered down the stage right walkway in a dressing gown (Scene Two). Starting with Friar Laurence’s description of “The grey-eyed morn”, he described a dream in which he saw Juliet piercing herself with a knife, using the Nurse’s description of Tybalt’s wound. He stood over Juliet in the bed as she tossed and turned, writhing in agony, as he said:
I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes,–
A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse;
Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaub’d in blood,
All in gore-blood; I swounded at the sight.
Romeo used Friar Laurence’s remark that “violent delights have violent ends”.
Juliet awoke and came forward in a bath robe. Romeo told her of his troublesome dream. She comforted him with dialogue borrowed from other characters. She turned on a radio telling him “We must have you dance”: Mercutio’s line to the love-struck Romeo. As the radio played Dean Martin singing Sway, she began to dance, peeling back her bath robe to reveal her swimsuit underneath.
Romeo continued to talk about his bad dream, describing his “soul of lead”. This continued with Juliet speaking Mercutio’s lines in response to Romeo (“friend” changed to “wife”) until Juliet launched in Mercutio’s wonderful Queen Mab speech.
She agreed that in talking of dreams she was talking of nothing, inserting “thy fearful, deathful dreams” before “which are the children of an idle brain” to persuade Romeo that his bad dream was another kind of nothing.
She took Romeo’s lines from 5.1 to insist that “My dreams presage some joyful news at hand”.
Romeo concluded with his own lines from the start of 2.1 “Can I go forward when my heart is here? Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.”
They began to dance, but almost immediately Juliet went into a spasm as her leg gave way under her. She collapsed to the ground. This was the first indication that something was seriously wrong with her.
The next scene (Three) saw a marked deterioration in Juliet’s condition. She sat in a chair and tried to clutch a photo album. Her grip was so weak that it fell from her hand several times. On each occasion Romeo replaced it. She spoke a modified version of the Nurse’s lines about Juliet as if speaking of her own dead child. A photo of the child was projected onto the screen. She said she was expecting news using lines from when she awaited the return of the Nurse.
Romeo busied himself at the other side of the stage as if in the garden collecting herbs, using Friar Laurence’s relevant lines. He picked a herb and looked it up in his small plant guide. In view of later developments, Romeo’s plant gathering was of notable significance.
The scene switched to Juliet alone in bed. She awoke and, using an invented line, described how “A deadly sickness now chills up my veins” followed by lines from herself and Romeo to describe her condition, concluding with “O, break, my heart! poor bankrupt, break at once!”
She climbed out of bed and collapsed on the ground. Romeo entered to find her there and, letting fall the flowers he had brought her, tried to lift her up. He pulled on her arm three times but could not support her. Each time she fell back she offered up a single frail arm for him to grasp.
The scene changed back to Juliet in her chair. Romeo brought her a letter. This was obviously some sort of medical report, because when she showed Romeo the contents, he asked whether she were “past hope, past cure, past help?” words originally used by Juliet herself.
Juliet confirmed the bad news using Capulet’s lines “All things that we ordained festival, turn from their office to black funeral”. But Romeo reassured her of his support using part of Sonnet 116 “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken”. He picked her up and danced with her.
Romeo expressed his dismay using a rearranged part of Sonnet 65:
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
Since Not brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power…
The end of this was completed by Juliet:
…How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Romeo continued with a version of Sonnet 64:
That O Time will come and take my love away.
And, pale, I cower to think upon that day [invented line]
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Juliet used an amended Friar Laurence line to tell Romeo that she knew he would expect her to “bear this work of heaven with patience”.
Using invented lines mixed with some altered originals, Juliet expressed her wish “to choose to sleep” rather than continue to suffer.
Romeo responded with an altered Capulet line “Death, that hath ta’en her would take thee hence to make me wail, ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.”
Juliet’s preference for death over slow, undignified decline was expressed using altered lines about her dislike of Paris, so that she would prefer to leap from battlements rather than die slowly. An invented line insisted that Romeo should “help me sleep”.
With the word “Go” now standing euphemistically for dying, Romeo insisted that he would go with her. He complained that “every little mouse, every unworthy thing” in heaven would be able to see her and “Romeo may not”.
Juliet borrowed Friar Laurence’s lines to chide Romeo for his “womanish tears” with Romeo rebuking her “Thou cut’st my head off with a golden axe, and smilest upon the stroke that murders me.”
Juliet used lines original spoken by Benvolio to tell Romeo to find another love: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye” and “Compare her my face with some those that I soon shall show, and I that will make thee think thy swan a crow.” But this offended the “devout religion” of Romeo’s eye.
In a reversal of roles, Romeo wished that Juliet would go “no further than a wanton’s bird, who lets it hop a little from her hand”. They sank to the floor to sing “O mistress mine” from Twelfth Night, with its telling lines “What’s to come is still unsure” and “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”.
Juliet was in a wheelchair for the next scene (Four). Romeo had to position her feet on its foot rest as she had now lost the use of her legs. Juliet spoke part of Sonnet 65:
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
With Romeo responding with part of Sonnet 64 and a recurrence of an invented line used in the previous scene:
Time will come and take my love away.
And, pale, I cower to think upon that day
The same exchange was repeated twice with a blackout between to indicate the passage of time during which she had deteriorated to the point of being fed with a spoon, but spat the food out again.
After she had been fed, Romeo lifted her up and washed her face with a cloth.
At one point in this sequence, she appeared to revive completely and danced feverishly, brandishing apparently healthy legs in what might have been her waking dream or wish fulfilment fantasy.
Romeo placed Juliet in her bed where she tossed and turned. She used Capulet’s “all things now change them to the contrary” and also Mercutio’s dying words about being “peppered”.
She spoke like a demented person using the Nurse’s lines about the baby Juliet to talk of her dead daughter. Romeo turned his back in resignation using Lady Capulet’s “Enough of this. I prithee, hold thy peace.” But Juliet continued, just as the Nurse did, using slightly altered lines to pursue the same subject.
Romeo questioned her using Capulet’s image of the tearful Juliet being like “a bark, a sea, a wind”.
Juliet chillingly used altered lines of Romeo’s to ask him, “Doth thou not think me an old murderer”. The last two words were very apt to this reworking of the play.
Juliet openly asked Romeo to kill her with poison, intimating “I do spy a kind of hope” that she would “soon sleep in quiet”. Romeo promised “I’ll help thee hence”.
A solitary Romeo announced that he had dreamt of an apothecary, using his original description of the shop he had visited (Scene Five). But he was already in possession of the “soon-speeding gear as will disperse itself through all the veins that the life-weary taker may fall dead”. He went to the front of the stage and picked up a small blue bottle which had been there throughout the entire performance.
Scene Six began as a replay of the Prologue with Juliet in bed as Romeo approached, addressing the sight as “thou detestable maw, thou womb of death”, but this time with the context of Juliet’s degenerative illness adding new meaning.
Instead of continuing with Romeo’s words over Juliet’s body in the tomb, the production reverted to an edited version of “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”.
Juliet said “What must be shall be” to which Romeo replied “That’s a certain text”. Using Friar Laurence’s line as a prelude to their suicide pact was quite disturbing.
In an invented line, Juliet told Romeo not to think of present woes but on “the years of joy and peace behind”. Romeo took the blue bottle into the bed with him as the pair settled down for the night.
Juliet awoke and articulated her fears “What if his mixture does not work at all”, which would mean that she when she woke the next day “shall I not be distraught, environed with all these hideous fears”. The “hideous fears” here were not the bones of the Capulet tomb but her own fears about her future deterioration.
The couple went into a role reversed version of the lark/nightingale exchange, with Romeo speaking Juliet’s lines, hearing the nightingale, not wanting her to “go” i.e. die, and Juliet using Romeo’s lines about the lark and leaving for Mantua. Romeo eventually accepted Juliet’s version and agreed it was morning that she would soon “go”.
Romeo administered the poison to her with a hushed “Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast.”
Returning to lines from the balcony scene, Juliet wished Romeo farewell. He asked her if they would ever see each other again. She doubted it not and concluded with Romeo’s “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
Romeo watched her die as he uttered the fragment “Adieu, adieu. Parting is…” Realising she was dead, he kissed her using a Juliet line “My dismal scene I needs must act alone”. He exclaimed “Here’s to my love”, drank from the bottle and fell dead beside her.
After a period of stillness the pair rose from their deathbed looking bright and refreshed. In this Epilogue we saw them falling in love for the first time at the Capulet ball. Romeo remarked on the lady enriching the hand of knight and launched into the famous “If I profane with my unworthiest hand…” This sequence continued until Juliet told him he kissed by the book.
They both spoke “O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard. Being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.” Juliet concluded with “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. Give me thy hand.”
They took each other by the hand and walked away, Romeo finally putting a comforting arm around Juliet.
The ending felt slightly odd because it represented a much earlier point in time, but did not contain sufficient cues to make this convincing. The text assumes that the couple look younger, but such a quick change cannot be made in their appearance.
Viewed another way, the ending could be a fantasy shared by the dying couple rather than an actual re-enactment of the beginning of their relationship.
The use of Shakespeare’s sonnets to insert truly adult sentiment into a story of young love was seamless and effective.
The power of language was used to express the heightened emotions engendered by love against a backdrop of sickness rather than health. But then perhaps love is at its most intense at precisely the moments when it is so severely tested.