The cast of A Tender Thing | Visy Theatre

Let me say immediately that this is a lovely, intensely moving, intelligent piece of theatre. It was first staged in 2009 by the Royal Shakespeare Company and later in 2012 at the World Shakespeare Conference in Stratford. Its writer, or perhaps I should say creator, Ben Power, is apparently a wunderkind, skilled at presenting “rewrites” for modern audiences. Here he has rearranged and put Shakespeare’s words into the minds and mouths of an elderly Romeo and Juliet, as they dream and remember a shared past of love, companionship and mutual dependence.

The set is spare, but absolutely suggestive. It appears to be either a retirement village or a small unit with its neat outdoor patio, with real flowers growing neatly in well-tended mulch. This is no mere idle touch, however; Romeo is a gentle gardener who turns the soil and plants small flowers for his Juliet, and then, with a red rose between his teeth, becomes a Latin lover dancing for her delight. Flloyd Kennedy’s laugh was that of a young girl, not a giggle, not a guffaw, but a genuinely loving embrace of her lover’s performance.

Upstage there is just a double bed, the centre of some of the most tender moments and, closer to the patio, a white wicker settee, Juliet’s refuge in her sickness when she can no longer dance with her “husband”. The emphasis on that word, which the young Juliet delights in after the Friar’s ceremony, is a marker of how Power has swooped on and through the text, adapting it to the ebb and flow of memory and dream in a way that peoples this modern play with the world of its original source. So Juliet speaks some of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech which is all about dreaming, and we hear of her birth during the earthquake and of her weaning through the Nurse’s original words incorporated in their dialogue. Even more interconnections are made with some of the sonnets, so “bare ruined choirs” and “love is not love” and a song from Twelfth Night slip seamlessly into their loving exchanges. They are lovers who celebrate their union with some of the greatest expressions of love we have in the language.

For me, the perfection of the last moments of the play when Romeo and Juliet come downstage, one on either side, and speak out to the audience the first words of love exchanged at the first meeting in Shakespeare’s play, where they tease each other with a real two-part sonnet with “hand to hand is holy palmer’s kiss”,  is hard to beat. It’s both about the impetuosity of first love in the original and the continuity of shared memories and dreams that’s possible to celebrate in a long union, which Power has explored.

Both Michael Croome and Flloyd Kennedy range easily over the rather wide space, Kennedy sometimes coquettishly, sometimes painfully, Croome more purposeful as he gardens, tends to his Juliet in the big wide bed and helps her towards her last breaths. The slow dance to one of their favourite tunes from the Great American Songbook is almost a Hollywood cliché, but it is so beautifully managed that it is a memorable highlight.

Which brings me to that sudden emergence in the cinema of all those movies about older people having fun, whether it be in an Indian hotel, an old people’s home (or should I say an aged care facility), a French kitchen (not so much fun), or a concert hall (and Performance was truly worth seeing). All I can say is that this production has a truth that is missing in many of those generic slices of so-called geriatric life. This combination of Shakespeare’s words, a new take on a very old story, two fine actors, and sensitive and imaginative direction really works.

It’s moving, emotionally and linguistically exhilarating, and really does fulfil Full Circle’s aim of “seeing the familiar from a new perspective”. I look forward to their next production.

The details: A Tender Thing plays the Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse until May 18. Tickets on the venue website.

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