Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Theatre: A Tender Thing

The play "A Tender Thing" by Ben Power re-imagines the lives of Romeo and Juliet, had they not died as star-crossed lovers in their youth.  Instead, they got married, had a child together, and now are dealing with aging and illness in their twilight years.  What makes the play unique is that despite the new parameters and dynamics of the relationship of these legendary lovers, the dialogue is still mostly sourced from the original Shakespeare play, with a few lines from some of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Power has taken lines from different acts and scenes throughout the play, often spoken by different characters, and re-purposed them to form a new flow of text that is amazingly fitting to the new narrative.

In this revised plot-line, Romeo and Juliet are still deeply in love, but Juliet is seriously ill and Romeo has been acting as her caregiver.  Many of the lines from the famous balcony scene are spoken in an altered order, mixed in with Juliet's speech while awaiting her wedding night with Romeo, as an illustration of the couple's enduring love.  Romeo's fear losing his wife to illness results in bad dreams of her death, which he describes using the re-purposed text of the Nurse describing Tybalt's death ("a bloody piteous corpse; Pale, pale as ashes..") to which Juliet replies with nonsensical ramblings about dreams, using Mercutio's Queen Mab speech.

As Juliet becomes sicker, her mind wanders as she recalls their dead child Susan, taking over the Nurse's lines about her own child from the original play.  It gets to the point where Juliet asks Romeo to help end her suffering, putting into use lines about dying, drinking poison and finding an apothecary from the scenes where Juliet fakes her own death, and when Romeo goes to kill himself when he believes that Juliet is really dead.  The original lark and nightingale discussion from when Juliet is trying to prolong her time with Romeo before he is banished, takes on a whole new meaning in A Tender Thing, when Romeo tries to prolong his time with ailing Juliet before ending her life.

Comparing the text from A Tender Thing (which I found in the Toronto Reference Library) to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet accentuated what a masterpiece Ben Power has created.  In one sequence of dialogue from Scene 2 of A Tender Thing, Power took lines spoken by Friar Laurence, the Nurse, Montague, Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio, Mercutio and Capulet, coming from acts and scenes all throughout the source play.

The title for the play comes from a phrase originally used by Mercutio and Romeo when discussing Rosaline, and now spoken by Juliet and Romeo, when debating whether love is "a tender thing" or "too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn".

The two actors of this Soulpepper production were perfectly cast as the older versions of Romeo and Juliet.  Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler are a real life couple who met in their 20s in theatre school and "fell in love while doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet".  Their pairing exudes a genuine level of comfort and love that comes from being married for the last 35 years and frequently acting together. This attractive couple has aged well and perfectly fit my image of what the romantic leads for the aging versions of Romeo and Juliet would look like.  Palk's Juliet is frail, lithe and ethereal while Ziegler's Romeo is virile and dashing. 

The lighting and music worked well to set the mood of the play.  I was not as fond of the set design, which consisted of a bed (around which most of the action took place), an arm chair and a tall pile of books (that distracted me but never came into play).  The exit from the bedroom looked like a closet to me, so I spent some time in the beginning wondering why Romeo went to hide in the closet.

Overall, this was an impressive play that I would have appreciated even more, had I been more familiar with the source Romeo and Juliet text prior to watching it.  Now that I've done my research, perhaps I need to watch A Tender Thing again.

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