An older couple, still in love despite the passing of years and the loss of a daughter, find themselves facing the physical decline of age and a cruel illness. In a sequence of gentle scenes, they move towards making a decision about assisted suicide. One outcome, at least, is certain, as the opening scene implies: a woman, pale as a ghost, enfolded in bed like a corpse.
The play itself is staged almost entirely in the bedroom, the room of lover and lover, sickness and care-giving. In its episodic but interconnected scenes, it presents a powerful reflection on ageing, on what happens to love when the lover becomes care-giver, on the end of life.
But wait – the time is out of joint! Aren’t the lines all Shakespeare’s? A witty sideways knock to the proscenium arch over the stage, lurched out of its square, confirms it. The words have been culled, redistributed and remapped from Shakespeare’s famous play of star-crossed teenage love, Romeo and Juliet, by a precocious dramaturg, Ben Power. Here the lovers (Olwen Fouère and Owen Roe) have survived, but a no less cruel death awaits them. Clever it certainly is, and this production of it, directed by Selina Cartmell with an under-stated sureness, brings unexpected new life to one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays.
Compared to his raging Lear at the Abbey last year, or to Shakespeare’s teenaged Romeo, Roe’s is a charmingly down-to-earth figure, tidy and tolerant, with little more than occasional grumpiness. Fouère’s Juliet retains more of the airiness of her younger self, though it is in the scenes of her sickness that Fouère’s strength as an actor becomes extraordinary. Some social differences between Shakespeare’s lovers emerges through their varying articulation of his lines, but the struggle here is all too mortal: not families or generations or social or historical conflicts but the age-old tussle with death itself.
For all its cleverness, it’s a very affecting piece, even despite the familiarity of the words and the ongoing temptation to track their movements. The sparse spaces and lighting work well, though can be a little under-used. A harshly-lit bathroom discovery space was put to great use to suggest boundaries between life and death and how we police them with physical care of the body; the eye was drawn to its harsh truths again and again, though more interplay with the dressing-table downstage would have given traction to the idea. On the other hand, a dull wardrobe transformed with a knowing shake of a snow-globe to a doorway to the happy past, in a refulgent golden blaze of light, was over-used and a little hackneyed in conception.
There are more than a few televisual or filmic touches, most of which work well. Marc Teitler’s subtle piano score turns choral for the most emotionally-charged scenes, and witty song choices enliven the fragmented dance scenes in which their early love is remembered.
There was a satisfying absence of the kind of knowingness and easy audience-pleasing nods that such a radical but insistently visible reworking of Shakespeare would allow. This showed a well-earned confidence by Cartmell, and was well judged. And it had the wonderful effect of letting Shakespeare’s language take flight in new and exciting ways.