Nancy Palk’s Juliet, frail and bed-ridden, tosses between the sheets, racked by pain and confused memories of her long-dead child. Joseph Ziegler’s Romeo, white-haired and careworn, watches helpless and heartbroken as his wife of many years battles a terminal illness.
This is not, needless to say, the teenage love tragedy that goes by the name of Romeo and Juliet. Rather, it’s A Tender Thing, Ben Power’s self-described Shakespeare remix, which repurposes the original text to tell a poignant tale of an aging couple facing mortality.
Power’s clever little two-character play, now on at Soulpepper, suggests that Shakespeare’s “star-cross’d lovers” didn’t die in that double suicide in the Capulet family vault. Instead, they lived into old age, their dazzling love undimmed, to endure a more commonplace tragedy. Imagine Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning film Amour but with a screenplay by the Bard.
And the words are all Shakespeare’s, culled mainly from Romeo and Juliet but also from other sources, including fragments of the Sonnets and one of Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night. Power, a young British dramaturge who specializes in radical adaptations – his stripped-down version of Euripides’s Medea is currently at London’s National Theatre – has found plenty of lines that resonate in new contexts. The giddy young Juliet’s endearing memory-lapse on the balcony – “I have forgot why I did call thee back” – becomes, for the older Juliet, a funny-sad senior’s moment. Friar Laurence’s soliloquy on medicinal plants and herbs, now spoken by Romeo, becomes the husband’s research into drugs for his ailing spouse.
Power’s most ingenious stroke, however, is to take the Nurse’s memories of the infant Juliet and her own child from Shakespeare’s play, and conflate them into his elderly Juliet’s wistful recollections of a deceased daughter. It effectively suggests that this senescent Romeo and Juliet have endured the devastating death of a child, which has perhaps only increased their dependence on each other.
It’s surprising, in fact, how well Shakespeare’s text suits this new scenario and Power, whose play was created for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2009, isn’t the only one to realize it. Toronto director Mitchell Cushman did something similar this past winter with his play The Last of Romeo and Juliet for Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont., which imagined the pair as geriatric lovers confined to a retirement home.
I didn’t see Cushman’s show, so I can’t compare it with A Tender Thing, but I did keep thinking of Amour as I watched Michael Shamata’s exquisite Soulpepper production. Shamata’s modern-dress staging is muted and elegant in the manner of Haneke’s film. Even the set, a spare bedchamber with an Old World look, designed by Shawn Kerwin, could have been inspired by the movie.
The resemblance ends, though, with actors Palk and Ziegler, who are a generation younger than Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. They make this a tragedy of late middle age, with Palk as a Juliet who is clearly dying too soon. The actress, clad in a night gown, her hair long and loose, often evokes the girl inside the woman. Ziegler’s grizzled, paunchy Romeo may no longer be in shape for balcony-climbing, but he can still leap into a bed with youthful zest.
Soulpepper mainstays Ziegler and Palk are, of course, a real-life couple whose own long marriage and past performances together inform this show. You can’t watch them without experiencing echoes of their Willy and Linda in Death of a Salesman, say, or James and Mary in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Much enjoyment is derived from the way they bring their own natural feeling to the play. They act with a low-key realism even as they spout Shakespearean verse.
That juxtaposition isn’t as jarring as it sounds. Only occasionally does it fall flat, as when Palk’s Juliet delivers Mercutio’s feverish Queen Mab speech in the matter-of-fact tone of someone reciting a recipe. But when Romeo and Juliet relive their love-at-first-sight meeting – occurring, à la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, at the end of the play – Palk and Ziegler shine with true ardour and awe.
This is a lovely show, dressed by Kerwin in a gentle brown-and-white colour scheme, with soft crepuscular lighting by Michael Walton and a delicate score composed by Mike Ross. It enhances the sense that we’re watching a couple’s intimate world, in which they speak a private, poetic language of memories and references that conjure up the ghosts of Shakespeare’s original play.
Ultimately, however, Power can only go so far in telling a story with bits of borrowed text. His slight play, a mere 70 minutes, lacks dramatic force. Next to Romeo and Juliet itself, it is a pale shadow: at times amusing, at other times moving, but finally a rather tenuous thing.