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A Tender Thing

Ben Power
The Belfrey Theatre, Victoria BC
The Belfrey Theatre, Victoria BC

Clare Coulter and Peter Anderson in A Tender Thing Credit: David Cooper
Clare Coulter in A Tender Thing Credit: David Cooper
Peter Anderson and Clare Coulter in A Tender Thing Credit: David Cooper
Clare Coulter and Peter Anderson in A Tender Thing Credit: David Cooper

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is perhaps one of the richest sources for other artists working in a wide variety of genres, from the Broadway musical West Side Story to operas to ballets; there’s even a version for four gender-bending Catholic schoolboys waiting out their after school detention (Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R&J).

Ben Power’s premise for his A Tender Thing is simple in the extreme: what if Romeo and Juliet had not killed themselves but had lived happily ever after? His version turns a play that is all about youthful impetuousness and even stupidity into a meditation on mature love, commitment, and the losses created by our own mortality.

It’s a beautiful script—we realise soon after the show begins that Juliet is dying of an unspecified disease; whatever it is, it’s both painful and debilitating. Through use of Shakespeare’s text from Romeo and Juliet, other selections from his plays and his poetry, we watch the two lovers work through the diminishing of the quality of life, and the reliving of their long lives together with speeches perhaps all too familiar to theatergoers given new life by the new context of Power’s play.

The Nurse’s memory of her child Susan becomes Juliet’s memory of the child she never had with Shakespeare’s Romeo. The script is elegiac and magical as it moves inevitably not to tragedy but to the closure of life in a dignified and somber manner.

Peter Anderson isn’t always up to the language of Romeo. Shakespeare’s play is among his most lyrical and the characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are able to produce speech after beautiful speech. However, Anderson’s characterization of an old man coming to terms with his wife’s decision to end her life rather than allowing herself to descend further into pain and incapacity is faultless. He is funny without pushing, and displays the emotional life of his Romeo without signaling or becoming maudlin.

Even more amazing is Clare Coulter’s Juliet. Her performance is as close to perfection as any playwright could hope for. It is clearly her decision to determine the means of her passing and her strength matches that of her youthful counterpart. Coulter lets us in to the situation she is facing without any exposition at all—we just know what this Juliet is facing. (Powers is to be commended for the way in which he lets his audiences enter the play in their own way. He trusts us.) In addition, her portrayal of the physical anguish of an elderly woman dying horribly is both absolutely convincing and absolutely unsentimental.

Both these performances are among the strongest I’ve seen in decades of theatre going: director Peter Hinton has served both the actors and the production well.

All this is framed by as perfect a production as the actor’s work on stage. Christina Poddubiuk’s set consists primarily of mirrored walls and a bed, a perfect choice for this play about the ways in which we work through our choices about health and illness, with a large door in the back, which is not only the door of the lover’s flat but also the entrance to the life beyond this life.

Her design is matched by Robert Thompson’s lighting design and Brooke Maxwell’s impressive sound design and original score—which is continuous throughout the entire length of the play.

Beautiful work, and the Belfrey Theatre has done very well with the North American première of this powerful play.

Reviewer: Keith Dorwick