Nurse: Gentleman, can any of you tell me where I may find the young Romeo?
Romeo: I can tell you; but young Romeo will be older when you have found him than he was when you sought him. (Act II, Scene IV)
Last year, David Ferry received a most unusual offer from his agent – unusual for a 63-year-old actor, anyway. “David, I never thought I’d be asking you this question: How would you like to play Romeo?”
The 40-year veteran of the Canadian stage accepted the part – and, for the next two weeks, at Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont., you’ll find him performing his version of the balcony scene.
If this simply sounds like what sixtysomething screen stars Richard Gere or Harrison Ford get up to all the time taken to extremes, however, consider that Ferry’s romantic interest is not 14, or even close. Long-time actor and director Diana Leblanc, who is 70, is playing his Juliet.
The Last of Romeo and Juliet, written by directed by Mitchell Cushman, takes Shakespeare’s original text and reorders it to fit into a new context, relocating the play’s romance to a retirement home in Verona. Instead of their parents standing in the lovers’ way, it’s the children Capulet and Montague, who have put them in a home in the first place, who forbid their contact.
The idea is not Cushman’s alone. Indeed, this season, several sixtysomething Romeos are hitting the stages across Canada, with Juliets who are older than most Nurses.
In November, theatre vets Peter Anderson and Clare Coulter played R&J in A Tender Thing, a similar rejigging of Shakespeare’s play for an older cast by Britain’s Ben Power, at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria. Next August, Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk, founding members of Soulpepper Theatre Company, will assume the same roles when the play premieres in Toronto.
What’s behind all these star-crossed lovers entering their twilight years? In the case of The Last of Romeo and Juliet, Cushman, who is closer to the prototypical protagonists’ age at 27, was inspired by time he spent visiting his late grandmother’s retirement home and also his work with Act II Studio, a theatre program for adults 50 and older that is a part of continuing education at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
As the up-and-coming director puts it, Romeo and Juliet is a play about two characters who don’t have agency over their own lives, and the question of who has agency in society has shifted radically since Elizabethan times. “It’s not true with teenagers today – it’s older people who don’t have agency today,” says Cushman. (He notes that he was not aware of A Tender Thing when he started working on his adaptation, but had heard of Juliet and Her Romeo, another version for older actors that premiered at the Bristol Old Vic in 2010.)
With the population continuing to age in Western society and lifelong marriage (and erectile dysfunction) becoming a thing of the past, storytellers in all media are increasingly interested in holding a mirror up to nature by telling romances featuring older characters. Romeo and Juliet aren’t the only Shakespearean lovers getting swept up in this current, either: Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing were played by seventysomething Vanessa Redgrave and octogenarian James Earl Jones in a recent West End production in London.
For Ferry, these stage productions are a welcome antidote to what he says is still an overall preference of young actors – or even outright ageism – in the performing arts. “I’ve seen a lot of actors fade into the background, because there’s not work for them,” he says.
The issue is particularly acute for female classical actors. At least a man can progress from Romeo to Hamlet to Macbeth to Lear, but the juiciest roles in the canon are there for younger women. As Helen Mirren told a charity event in London last summer, “One of the inequities of Shakespeare is once you get to my age there are few great women’s roles.”
Of course, Mirren not too long ago played a gender-swapped Prospero in The Tempest on screen, just as Coulter, fresh off her Juliet in Victoria, is playing a female Tybalt in The Last of Romeo and Juliet and recently played a female Lear in Toronto.
But once you do get a big part in Shakespeare as an older actor, that’s only the beginning of the challenge, Leblanc is discovering. “Physically, I’m in pretty good shape, but I’m finding it difficult to learn lines,” she says. “When I was a girl, I’d get up on my feet, do the scene two or three time and I’d have it. Boy, oh boy, that ain’t so now.”
Finding the passion for each other is no problem for this Romeo and Juliet, however. “We’ve known each other for so long and she’s such a beautiful woman, that it’s so easy to fall in love with her,” says Ferry of his co-star, who once played Lady Capulet to his Mercutio in an outdoor production in Toronto’s High Park.
Leblanc agrees that her co-star is a “playful and passionate” onstage lover. “It’s very interesting to explore it and to try to give old love and sexual attraction a good name,” she says.