Review: A Tender Thing, RSC, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford

Richard McCabe as Romeo and Kathryn Hunter as Juliet. Photo Keith Pattison

Is love a tender thing? It is too rough. Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.” At its best, writing a review is my attempt to stay a little longer in the world of the production. Not to explain or dissect, but to stay in a place that I loved. A Tender Things is such a place. Ben Power’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with an old couple facing the only inescapable tragedy love deep into old age can face, is indeed a tender, magical, deeply moving and ultimately joyous thing.

Ben Power rearranges Shakespeare’s text into a new world, but words carry the memory of young love and language leaves space for unspoken sorrows to live. Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter, under the direction of Helena Kaut Howson, create a world of two people, a world so complete and perfect, that the ending is the natural and only possible conclusion. (In Shakespeare’s play, the tragedy is there are many solutions to the problem, but none is taken and the story ends in death. In A Tender Thing, the tragedy is the characters have to face the end in the full knowledge that there is one possible conclusion).

Kathryn Hunter, with her vital physicality, gives her Juliet an extraordinary spectrum of emotional and physical life, even as she wastes away. Richard McCabe lives the joy of love and the tragedy of parting with heartbreaking openness. He pulls, pushes, struggles with his glasses like these actions could give an end to his pain. When he gives into it, everything about him crumbles. Their spoken interactions are teasing, silly, warm but their true emotional life is in their physical connection: in one scene Romeo tries to support Juliet who, literally, slips away from him. His distress and resolve reflects everything that is at stake.

The set is plain, yet colourful: wooden boards, patches of sand on the edges, two chairs, a bed with white linen, a door. These strcutures are arranged with perfect simplicity. Sound, light design, music and video projection (and I am not a big fan of video projection in plays) add texture in frarming the actors in a rich sensory world, but they never get in the way of the characters’ connection.

The audience’s reaction was extraordinary: half an hour into the performance, stoic resolve was giving into sniffling, deep breaths and wiping tears. A couple sitting opposite me was holding hands throughout and the man looked shattered. Ultimately joy, not pain, is what drove the emotion.

P.S. In one scene, Richard McCabe (Romeo) picks up a weak unresponsive Kathryn Hunter (Juliet) to carry her to bed. In a moment – I suspect – that wasn’t part of the production, her hair got tangled on his collar button and he spent several seconds carefully untangling it. It was a unique moving moment of real life reflecting the play.

Peter Kirwan in Bardathon has posted his own eloquent review.

3 responses to “Review: A Tender Thing, RSC, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford

  1. We meant to get tickets for this gem but time and planning and other commitments got in the way. A real miss I think and I’m sorry I couldn’t fit this in the schedule. Glad u were able to stay in the moment.

    • I wanted to see it since the first production in 2009, and now, with Richard McCabe being one of my favourites, I wasn’t going to miss it. There are rumours that Digital Theatre is going to film it so maybe not all hope is lost.

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