A Tender Thing – October 2012


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


Kafka’s Monkey – April 2009


Adapted by Colin Teevan from A Report To An Academy by Franz Kafka

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st April 2009

This was our first time in the Maria theatre. It’s an interesting space; bit cramped for leg room but reasonably intimate. Apparently this performance was being recorded, but I don’t think it affected the standard either way; the audience were very appreciative, even of the nit-picking.

My rating for this production is based on my enjoyment of the piece as a whole. Kathryn Hunter’s performance was superb – both Steve and I rated it as 10/10, and hopefully she’ll receive the recognition she deserves come award time – but the play itself was rather dull and after the early stages I found my attention wandering a bit.

The set was very plain. A large white square screen stood several feet from the back wall, plumb centre, and for a large part of the performance a picture of an ape was projected onto it. A lectern stood to the right at the front and there was a stool on the left at the front with a tray carrying two bananas. Some climbing apparatus on the left wall was the only other thing I can remember.

Kathryn Hunter entered through the fire doors back right carrying a suitcase and cane. She, or rather her character Red Peter, was dressed formally, in tails with a white collar and tie, and with a top hat. She made it clear she was waiting for us to welcome her which we did, eventually, and then she set down her suitcase and cane, very carefully, and strolled over to the lectern to begin her address.

I realise as I write this that it feels more natural to say ‘she’ when talking about this ape-man, so perhaps there was a flaw in the performance after all, as I really can’t get past her gender. Anyway, she told us that she couldn’t do what she’d been asked here to do, to talk about her time as an ape, as her memory of those days had been superseded by her experiences as a man. But she did offer to tell us about her memories of the period following her capture and how she changed into a semi-human.

The story was quite difficult to listen to at first, despite many funny moments. Some sailors had shot at her pack of monkeys and she was the only one wounded. They took her on board and kept her in a small, cramped cage, where she couldn’t stand or lie down or sit. She spent the first days in captivity with her back pressed against the bars and her face to the wall. It was unpleasant to listen to and brought up echoes of the slave ships and humankind’s general bad treatment of animals.

She learned to copy the humans she saw, culminating in drinking off a bottle of rum which led to her first spoken words. She was sent to a variety of trainers and with hard work developed enough skills to become independent. She now performed in variety theatre and otherwise led a quiet life, with only a female chimpanzee for company at night. The story over, she left us the way she came.

Her movements were totally in keeping with her character. The way Kathryn Hunter managed to twist her arms round to point behind her looked impossible, but she did this regularly, usually to point at the screen. She picked up the tray of bananas and offered them to people in the front row, again using a very peculiar twisted arm movement. After the two women in the front took the bananas, there was an extra treat for one of the women as Peter checked out her hair for insects, eating what she found and commenting that there were lots in there. She also made use of a chap on the other side of the front row. She gave him the empty rum bottle that she was using to demonstrate that story and when she was caught in a cage of light she gestured to him to bring her the bottle, which he did. She also romped into the audience at least one other time, as well as using the climbing bars at the side, and given her small size this was probably as close as a human being can get to impersonating an ape.

I wasn’t sure what Kafka had meant by his original story, but I decided this was meant to be an allegory on the way society imposes its norms on the untrained human being, taking them from a place of ignorant freedom to a prison of education and knowledge. I was glad that the state of innocence wasn’t presented as some kind of ideal, a paradise to be yearned for and whose loss we should mourn. Mind you, there was still a strong sense of loss in the ape’s story, a sense that the suffering and hardships had left their mark and that there was no going back to the old ways. A creature caught between two worlds, neither of which was home anymore.

An interesting afternoon then, with some marvellous moments but ultimately less satisfying than I’d hoped for.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me