A Tender Thing

Ben Power, adapted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Royal Shakespeare Company

Northern Stage, Newcastle

(2009)

Review by Peter Lathan

Plays "inspired by" or "adapted from" the works of Shakespeare are not uncommon and the thought of them can, it has to be said, induce a shiver of apprehension, but when one has the imprimatur of the RSC and is written by Headlong's associate director, dramaturg and literary manager, already at the age of 28 an established star, expectations become much, much higher.

And so it proves with A Tender Thing. Ben Power has taken Romeo and Juliet and re-imagined it, as if the lovers were not "star-cross'd" but had lived to old age. He takes the words of the play - not just Romeo and Juliet's lines but speeches from others, most notably the Nurse, Friar Lawrence and Mercutio - and adds a soupçon of the Sonnets, giving them all the the aged protagonists so their story is told through Shakespeare's own words. Thus Power creates a new play from the ingredients of the old - and a powerful and moving piece he makes of it, too.

It's a two-hander with both actors, Forbes Masson as Romeo and Kathryn Hunter as Juliet (both playing a couple of decades older than their actual ages), giving utterly convincing performances which never for a moment falter in all the ninety minutes running time.

Juliet is dying and memories of the past, of meeting and falling in love, of dancing and enjoyment, of having and losing a child, flood back and are re-enacted before us. Hunter gives an amazing performance, her physicality changing from youthfulness to age to infirmity and illness, sometimes in the same scene. Masson is the rock, the firm centre which holds until the final moments of Juliet's life.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson, in her RSC debut season, controls the pace with a light touch on Neil Murray's spare but effective set, complemented by Jacques Collin's always appropriate video, underscored by live music for violin, cello and pianao by John Woolf.

The audience was transfixed, even the half-wit near me who, although his attention as fixed on the stage, could not refrain from rattling his bag of sweets throughout, annoying all those round about.

For me this "little gem" is the undoubted highlight of the RSC's Newcastle season and proves again, if proof were needed, that the company is right to devote some of its energy to new writing.