By Ben Power
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Monday 1st October 2012
It’s hard to evaluate this experience, as it’s completely unlike anything else I’ve seen. The topic isn’t new – we saw Abi Morgan’s Lovesong a year ago, which presents a similar story – but this process of taking apart Romeo and Juliet in order to stitch a new garment for an older couple is something I haven’t come across before.
This older couple are still very much in love, and have to face up to mortality when one of them develops a fatal illness. From an opening scene showing us the later stages of the husband’s situation, the play took us through their relationship from years before when the illness hadn’t appeared, moving back to the present and the resolution of their joint suffering. A final coda showed us the original meeting, including the famous sonnet between the two lovers, and then they left the stage for good.
There were many layers to this performance, and both actors – Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter – did a splendid job. The set indicated a beach somewhere; pale blue decking covered the stage, fringed with small pockets of sand, seaweed, plants and rocks. A large screen was lowered at the back of the thrust with a similar screen on the back wall which were used for video projections. These mostly consisted of ocean waves but they did use some other pictures, including photos of younger versions of Romeo and Juliet. The videos extended onto the floor of the stage, and they used sound effects too for good measure.
Music also featured strongly, with the couple often dancing; this was how the symptoms first appeared. There was a door to one side and a bed which was initially behind the screen but was brought forward as needed. They also used a wheelchair later on. At the start there were two wooden chairs on stage, one lying on its side near the left front and the other upright on the other side of the stage. A bottle of poison lurked in the sandy patch at the front of the stage. The costumes were contemporary yet old-fashioned, and the overall effect was of a nowhere place away from normal life where the couple could experience their relationship in total isolation.
Apart from a few lines from sonnet 116 – “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” – the dialogue appeared to be entirely from Romeo And Juliet, which is amazing. I recognized a number of lines, of course, and could even identify some line-swapping between the two lovers. Names had been changed to protect the integrity of their speeches, but there were still many lines of dialogue which were fresh and new, and I didn’t find the familiar ones at all distracting. There was a fair amount of humour too, especially in the early stages; when Juliet was telling Romeo what not to swear by, she kept putting her hand over his mouth and the expression on his face was hugely entertaining, desperate to assure her of his love and being constantly prevented.
Of course there were sadder moments as well. I found the detail of the illness hard to take at times, and the emphasis on those aspects perhaps unbalanced the play a little; instead of being about love it became more about assisted suicide. But that passed, and once the focus shifted back onto the lovers’ relationship I found my emotions more engaged again.
I did feel the Queen Mab speech was a bit of an intrusion – sort of a ‘greatest hits’ moment – and there may be scope for some other trimming, but on the whole this piece works very well and it’s a joy to hear these lines delivered so clearly by experienced actors. I was surprised to find how often death and aging are referred to in the original, and often by the young folk themselves; those phrases were extremely apt for this retelling. I would be happy to see this again, though not immediately, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it second time around.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me