​Year of Shakespeare: A Tender Thing

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


A Tender Thing, directed by Helena Kaut-Howson and written by Ben Power for the RSC at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Pete Kirwan



Unlike the Olympics, the World Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have a Closing Ceremony. There is no grand climax, no image of Prospero/Shakespeare drowning his books and asking for our applause, not even a celebrity-studded event production. Instead, the last officially badged World Shakespeare Festival production to open was this: a two-hander played (on this occasion) to a half-full Swan Theatre; a free rearrangement of the text of an early tragedy; a revival of a play first performed three years ago; and an evening centred around a subject matter none more downbeat. Yet Ben Power’s A Tender Thing was also one of the Festival’s triumphs, a delicate and profound tale that gave us Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet turned inside out and upside down, yet also opened up the musicality and thematics of the play in an enlightening way.

The headline of A Tender Thing is the play replayed between lovers at the end of long lives rather than in the flush of youth. Almost all of the words were taken from Shakespeare’s play, with the obvious insertion of ‘What is love?’ from Twelfth Night and the occasional other external quotation. Words were, however, divorced from character and context and distributed freely between two pensioners reminiscing on a life and preparing for the next phase. Language and quotation juxtaposed to create an experience dissonantly familiar, the audience invited to simultaneously recognise and relearn meanings.

The plot that emerged was unavoidably and emotionally (to this reviewer) resonant of Richard Eyre’s remarkable Iris. After a too-brief glimpse of an elderly couple dancing and playing like children as if in the first flushes of romance, we saw Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet’s leg buckle, and she stumbled and fell into her dancing partner’s arms. Debilitated – by a stroke or some more wasting disease – the audience were then privy to a sequence of intensely private scenes as the couple attempted to deal with her increasing physical helplessness, moving from a gammy arm that struggled to pick up a dropped photo album to an inability to lift, wash or feed herself. Audible sniffs could be heard around the auditorium from ten minutes in, only growing over the subsequent hour.

Hunter was oustanding in a physically and emotionally demanding role. From the moment of her first collapse, she was required to manually adjust her arm, which defaulted to a painfully strained and useless position at her side. Her voice became increasingly low and measured as she struggled to articulate consonants, and her leg dragged behind her. While still able to walk, she moved in limping, disjointed steps that could take her only a few metres before another collapse, as in one early scene where she threw down her stick, strode out and fell almost immediately onto her face. Yet this was no mere facsimile of disability. Hunter’s triumph was to maintain communication and expression even while appearing to be partially paralysed. Her eyes were wide and imploring, her stuttering mouth clear in its intent if not in its words. As the food Romeo carefully spooned to her fell out of her mouth, she looked up at him in desperation, shame and love.

One of the most extraordinary moments saw her, at a key point, suddenly leap out of her wheelchair. The lights changed to a spotlight and a figure who had become increasingly frail over the previous half hour danced for her life. Her legs flew out, her balance was precise, her body supple and flexible as she flung herself across the wheelchair, leaned back, stretched and reached for the heavens, before meekly returning to her chair, resuming her state and gazing in pain up at her husband. This short moment, capturing the spiritual and mental freedom that Juliet felt while trapped within her body, was beautiful in itself but also spoke to Shakespeare’s heroine’s own entrapment, Power’s play preserving the striving for release.

Richard McCabe’s affable Romeo was heartbreaking in a performance again reminiscent of Jim Broadbent’s in Iris . He was lovably daft in his early scenes as he donned a suit, danced privately, sneaked up on his fabulously dressed date and cheekily tried to put his hands on her breasts. Later, he gathered plants, then removed his knee pads and sat in a comfortable armchair to sift through a photo album. His character, unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo, was a paragon of stability, the kindly man living entirely for his love. In McCabe’s voice, Romeo was the bumbling romantic, rarely forgetting the dated transistor radio playing Ruiz’s ‘Sway’ and a red rose, a series of gestures that, in one of Juliet’s final mobile moments, she attempted to recreate.

It was Romeo’s patience that shone through. Over a sequence of detailed, precise scenes he picked her up, held her, washed her carefully, swung her gently, laid her down and, most often, danced with her in his arms. The same dance that they shared together early in the play became the motif of their love, returned to even in the midst of their ablutions, becoming a shared memory that broke through during her washing where the two caught each other’s eye and shared a tender kiss, their affection undiminished. Yet we also saw the strain that he felt himself under, at one moment snapping and shouting at her as she babbled, and then at other moments sitting and quietly weeping.

Helena Kaut-Howson’s production was set against Jacques Collin’s remarkable videos and Mike Compton’s evocative music design (punctuated with John Woolf’s music). Around the edges of the stage were glimpses of sand and shells (revealing, towards the play’s end, the small purple vial of poison). The repeated three-dimensional motif was of waves crashing against a shore, the epic backdrop running onto the edges of waves lapping around the feet of the actors, and at one point becoming a whirlpool threatening to engulf them. The obvious symbolism of time eroding lives was made local by images of a young couple at the seashore. Juliet’s early appearance dancing for Romeo in a bathing costume evoked a nostalgia for carefree times that extended the sense of slippage of time backwards as well as forwards, their entire lives captured in these final moments.

While some may have been tempted to play the game of spotting the transpositions of famous lines (perhaps most evocatively, Juliet moaning that her illness ”twill serve’), there was little self-consciousness in Power’s arrangement. Instead, lines and situations fell naturally into place, upsettingly as Juliet took over the Nurse’s lines about her lost daughter. A picture of a beautiful young girl faded in and out on the screen, leaving us with fragments of a story half told, a montage of memories and loose ends that Juliet physically thrashed to hold onto even as she lost control of her body. The reliving of immediate memories saw Romeo use his umbrella to pull Juliet around in her wheelchair to their song, dancing as long as they could until her choking forced a premature end.

As the production moved towards its close, the pathos moved towards, while staying on the right side of, melodrama. The two shared a bed, and as Juliet awoke and prepared to take her ‘medicine’ it was Romeo who asked if she would be gone, the line becoming a play for a few more final moments. As she slipped away, Romeo followed in anguish, curling up with her and taking the last of the poison. We were treated to a dreamlike coda, the two awaking in turn and the video screen changing to a golden field. The two met again, sharing the play’s famous sonnet as they encountered one another as if in a dream. Without resolving their sense of the reality of their encounter, they instead took hands and walked away together towards the fields. It was a sombre but fittingly cyclical close to both play and festival, a return to the beginning and a reliving of meetings rather than an iteration of farewells.


This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


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Author:Peter Kirwan

Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare at the University of Nottingham. His main research is on plays of disputed Shakespearean authorship, and he has published on early book history and contemporary performance of early modern plays. He reviews theatre on his website The Bardathon (http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/pkirwan) and is currently preparing an edited collection on Shakespeare and the Digital. He is a Trustee of the British Shakespeare Association. Follow Peter on Twitter at @DrPeteKirwan.
  • Sophie

    I found A Tender Thing to be an interesting take
    on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, taking
    the words of the original play and adapting them for use in this topical piece
    on euthanasia. It is a story of age, loss and love which is staged against a
    beautiful backdrop of sunsets, waves and rain. The play focuses on the two
    eponymous characters of Shakespeare’s play in their twighlight years as Juliet
    degenerates physically before our eyes and Romeo is called upon to end her
    suffering with poison. Shakespeare’s text, in true Glee ‘mash-up’ style, is
    redistributed, altered and (occasionally) mangled. (“What light through yonder….er…door…
    breaks?). For the main part this works, although in some parts it comes across
    as forced and unnatural. Juliet is reassigned some of the Nurse’s lines, which
    helps to create the tapestry of their past life together by providing a back
    story in the form of a dead child. She also inherits Mercutio’s Queen Mab
    speech, ensuring that the lack of other characters in this two hander does not
    have to be a barrier to incorporating some of the most famous lines of the

    A Tender Thing is definitely an interesting take on
    Shakespeare’s original text and the use of his words in an entirely different
    context is imaginative but ultimately the play has nowhere to go. It begins
    with the spectre of Juliet’s decline and it ends, predictably, in death. While
    it may add something to a debate on euthanasia (particularly in the wake of the
    Tony Nicklinson case) it does not make for a particularly entertaining piece of
    theatre. Despite this, the superb quality of the acting by Kathryn Hunter and
    Richard McCabe and the mesmerising staging make this play worth seeing.

  • A KENT

    Unlike many revision and adaptations of old tales, of which
    Shakespeare himself was a master, this appropriation of Shakespeare’s language
    to frame a new story was an incredibly interesting and beautiful production
    which portrayed one of the prevalent contemporary anxieties of our age: how do
    we deal with aging, illness and the approach to death for ourselves and for our
    loved ones.

    Reminiscent of some of the stunning sea videos of Tacita
    Dean, the intermittent backdrop of the sea – an image with its associations of
    constant restlessness and change, the ineluctable progress of time and tide
    (which waits for no man) – brought to
    mind Juliet’s own words about love: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/My
    love as deep, The more I give to thee/The more I have, for both are infinite.”

    Although the story was moving and the acting exceptional, the
    conscious awareness of Shakespeare’s Romeo
    and Juliet created a certain sense
    of detachment from the story as the mind made links between this version and
    the old. These links cast an interesting light upon certain lines – for example
    Capulet’s “How now” speech being used to comfort – and made you think about how
    they could be played differently in the original play.

    The play has always seemed to be as much about patience as
    love, and how the impatience of the two young lovers to be together and their
    impetuosity leads to disaster. This was also a play about patience, but
    patience with oneself and others, and how much we can endure in the approach to

  • Jill,

    A clever re-working of Romeo
    and Juliet, transposed to 20th century Italy and with the
    two teenage protagonists now an elderly married couple. They are
    the only characters on stage for the one and a half hours of the play. Between them, they deliver most of the lines
    from Romeo and Juliet – their own and
    also those of the ‘deleted’ characters, but these are so cleverly re-arranged that
    they are apt and make perfect sense where they are inserted; for example, the
    aging Juliet (Giulietta) reminisces about the death of their child – in the
    original this event and these words belong to the nurse.

    In this version, the threat and danger to the couple comes
    not from family conflicts, but from the terminal illness which is slowly ravaging
    Giulietta. The play comprises a series of flashbacks, interspersed with several
    dance routines. A main focus of A Tender Thing is the topical and
    controversial subject of care and
    euthanasia. For me, the most poignant
    moment of the play (and tear-jerking) was Romeo lifting a limp Giulietta from
    her wheelchair to wash her face and arms.
    Her frequent pleading to her husband to help her end her life was
    harrowing. Eventually he agrees and – as
    in the original – they both take poison and die. The fact that both actors then get up again
    after the death scene – in heaven together? – provides a satisfactory, if not
    happy, conclusion to their story. A Tender Thing was brilliantly acted and
    the dance routines were executed by a very athletic Kathryn Hunter.

  • paulackroyd

    I thought this was extremely interesting and effective presentation. It speculated at an answer posed in the programme. …What would have happened if Friar Laurence’s message got through to Romeo in the mausoleum and the two lovers had survived. The play managed to address two highly contemporary issues: the care of the elderly in our ageing society , and whether those facing painful and incurable illnesses, as Juliet was in this production, should have the right to end their own lives. We saw the agony not only of Juliet’s advancing condition but also of Romeo’ is s agony at the thought of living without, let alone being complicit in an act to bring about her earlier demise. The acting was a very high standard, particularly Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary portrayal of Juliet in final stages of her condition and the setting was simple but effective: no extraneous props or effects to distract attention from the two characters. I thought the use of Shakespeare’s language was very clever lifting passages which one recognised or thought one recognised and re-employing them in a new setting. This would make an interesting study piece alongside the original for those interested in the Shakespeare’s language. The tragedy in Shakespeare’s original was of two young lives needlessly wasted, this production posed the question of whether the death of two devoted lovers at the end of the lives is any less tragic.

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