A Tender Thing

Olwen Fouéré as Juliet and Owen Roe as Romeo in Siren Productions' 'A Tender Thing' by Ben Power. Photo: Anthony Woods

Olwen Fouéré as Juliet and Owen Roe as Romeo in Siren Productions' 'A Tender Thing' by Ben Power. Photo: Anthony Woods

A Tender Thing is a profoundly moving and brilliant piece of theatre, re-presenting and re-visioning Shakespeare in respectful but revelatory ways. The Dublin premiere is engaging and absorbing, with impressive technical credentials, insightful direction by Selina Cartmell, and great performances from Olwen Fouéré and Owen Roe.

Photo: Anthony WoodsRomeo and Juliet was always an end-of-life tale. It resolves with the double suicide of the star-crossed lovers whose tragedy, it has always seemed, was that they had barely begun to live. There has always been something slightly unbearable in the dewy-eyed puppy-love dimension of this, though. It seemed to need the bracketing of the “civil blood” making “civil hands unclean” to give it a little heft. Not so. Playwright Ben Power has removed all but the protagonists, largely preserving Shakespeare’s words of love and death but rearranging their chronology and adding some dialogue from other characters and other plays. It might seem sacrilegious to say that Power has found even deeper tragedy in Shakespeare’s words than Shakespeare’s own plot allowed him, but A Tender Thing is the most deeply touching ‘version’ of this tale you are likely to encounter.

A Tender Thing concentrates wholly on the loving relationship between two people over whom the shadow of death looms from the outset (because we know how this ends), but is unexpectedly tender, adult, and emotionally demanding because it also relocates these characters from youth to age. Preserving the vigorous emotions of elation and despair from the text becomes achingly poignant as the older actors portray the contours of a mature relationship, where practiced gestures make mundane details feel alive with familiarity, tenderness, and meaning.

Photo: Anthony WoodsSo we are introduced to Romeo (Owen Roe), a man of advancing years who enters in pyjamas, slippers, and bathrobe. He brings breakfast on a tray, complete with rose. He knows where the pills are in the bathroom. He tends to the ailing Juliet with resolution but increasing, visible strain. He can carry, undress, and clean her, and every action is a further marker of his pain. This is not a wide-eyed adolescent dreamer, but is nonetheless a man who knows love. So we find Juliet (Olwen Fouéré), white-haired yet brimful of life: playful, flirtatious, and challenging. Fouéré imbues the character with a life-force and positivity ruthlessly drained away stage by stage as Juliet becomes increasingly unwell. This actor can do incredible things with her voice, and there never seems any repetition of tone or cadence as she navigates a range of exchanges depicting the small steps from life to death. As the action becomes explicitly about the hard realities of death in a very modern idiom (terminal illness), every motion becomes a struggle, yet every collapse can end in an embrace as the two actors portray a couple thoroughly physically and spiritually involved with one another, and no less on a fatal death spiral than their teenage counterparts. It’s genuinely heartbreaking, and even frightening.

This is not an easy play to enjoy. There is no question that it is powerful and moving, but it will strike hard people for whom the issues around death and dying that it raises in the context of advancing age and illness are an immediate reality. This further reinforces the view that, while respecting the Bard in spirit and in letter, Power has fashioned something distinctly his own from the original text. There is a freedom in this to which Cartmell, Fouéré and Roe have responded in kind, resulting in a production that has the hallmarks of a legendary staging you’ll want to have seen.

Photo: Anthony WoodsCartmell directs with a discernible sense of the rhythms of life involved here. Every movement seems ordinary and natural, and yet there is constant and specific action with unobtrusive props and business involving robing and disrobing that means there is never stasis in this consciously confined space. Monica Frawley’s set is bordered by an enormous askew picture frame, opening onto a vista of a bedroom clad in dark blue wallpaper dappled with indeterminate splotches of pattern (later echoed by a bedspread that strategically highlights Juliet on her deathbed). Sinéad Wallace’s lights are generally muted, though light plays an important role as the repeated line “Give me the light” draws thematic focus on illumination right from the outset. The combination of set and lighting creates a strong sense of habitation and familiarity, and this plays into the surprise of the momentary explosions of memory (or fantasy) that contribute bright punctuations of yellow through light and costume.

There are many familiar lines here, given unfamiliar readings by skilled actors rendering a script that challenges expectation. It is Romeo and Juliet and yet it is not. In particular I was struck by how, as he lies watching Juliet die, Romeo is unable to complete the line “Parting is such sweet sorrow”. Instead he can only say “Parting is” – and, to paraphrase a different Shakespeare text entirely, the rest is silence.

Harvey O’Brien is a writer and critic, and lectures in Film Studies at University College Dublin. His latest book is Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back.

  • Review
  • Theatre

A Tender Thing by Ben Power, adapted from Shakespeare’s 'Romeo and Juliet'

28 Jan – 15 Feb, 2014

Produced by Siren Productions
In Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Directed by Selina Cartmell

Set Design: Monica Frawley

Costume Design: Gaby Rooney

Lighting Design: Sinéad Wallace

Composer: Marc Teitler

Choreographer: Liz Roche

With: Olwen Fouéré and Owen Roe