Playwright Ben Power talks about A Tender Thing, his re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet for an older couple.
How did A Tender Thing come about?
I started work on A Tender Thing in 2006 after a conversation with Michael Boyd (RSC Artistic Director) about doing some kind of re-working of a Shakespeare play. He had often had conversations with established and older actors about the parts they had always wanted to do – for men it was Romeo and for women it was Juliet. They remained interesting and fascinating characters to the actors even though they were no longer teenagers.
Was it the way that Shakespeare talks about love in Romeo and Juliet that made it feel so universal that actors wanted to be inside those sentiments and psychologies outside of the context of the original play?
That was my starting point. I looked at taking the material of Romeo and Juliet and re-working it to tell a different story that could be played by older actors – a story that is almost the opposite of the original story - about the end of love and the end of life. I wanted to see how much of the material could be re-shaped and it became really exciting and liberating to use the existing material to tell a new story.
The play . How involved were you in the original production, at Northern Stage?
I was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for rehearsals and the whole opening period which was brilliant. There is something really special about the RSC's annual residency in the North East, but to be there with a new piece of work made especially for those audiences was exciting and gave us an opportunity to find out what the piece was.
The emotional scale of the play was only made clear when there was an audience to tell the story to.
Were you surprised by how moved the audience was?
I wasn't really prepared for it. People had a real emotional reaction to it which is great. It was absolutely intended to move people. This may be something to do with the fact that the story deals with the end of life - somewhere where we are all going – whereas the words were originally written about the first explosion of love, somewhere where we have all been.
It will be interesting to see if it does the same in the Swan or if it does something different – because the Swan is such a different theatre. It's my favourite theatre in the world and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the action and the audiences will change in the Swan.
Have you changed the script?
The script is virtually the same, with some tiny changes. There are some physical differences between the theatres which will force change. But essentially it's the same show, with the same creative team and it will feel like an evolution of the Newcastle production into the Swan in Stratford. It won't feel radically different.
How will the video projection, designed by Jacques Callin, work?
There will be some video projection but it won't be the same as it was at Northern Stage in Newcastle which has cinema style auditorium. For that production, there was one screen at the front of the stage and one at the back, with the actors performing in between, giving a feeling of depth.
Because the Swan is a thrust stage it will work differently. The audience will be inside the action, with the possibility of projected film on the floor and all around the auditorium.
What will Kathryn Hunter and Richard McCabe bring to the roles of Romeo and Juliet?
Kathryn Hunter was in the original cast, so she knows the part and play very well. There weren't a huge number of performances, so I'm sure she feels she's only just beginning to really explore the possibilities of the language.
Richard is a fantastic actor coming to the part for the first time, so he's fresh, and brings a whole new dynamic to the character and the relationship with Kathryn Hunter.
It's a process of discovering their relationship. The play is all about a marriage, so it will be amazing to see a brand new marriage at the centre of the show.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm at the National Theatre now as Associate Director and am currently planning the repertoire for the company for the next two years. This summer I worked on two of the four Shakespeare films which were part of the Shakespeare Unlocked Season - Richard II and Henry V.
What's your favourite version of Romeo and Juliet?
Well what's great for me is that the first time I came to Stratford I saw Romeo and Juliet in the Swan Theatre, directed by Michael Attenborough with Zoe Waites as Juliet and Ray Fearon as Romeo (currently playing Mark Antony in the RSC's Julius Caesar).