A Tender Thing at the P.A.C.

February 4, 2014


Joe Dowling once said that when he watched Meryl Streep play Juliet, at the age of 62, he knew that no age appropriate actress could possibly do the part justice. “Armed with the ability to look back, she knew exactly what the psychological process was to follow.”

Ben Power runs this train of thought to the end zone by filleting the text of Romeo and Juliet, sprinkling bits of various sonnets and other plays throughout, and imagining a world where the lovers lived to grow old together. The hope and abandon of these star crossed lovers becomes comfortable and deep rooted and what was once hot, rebellious and irrepressible becomes sage and wistful, loaded with memory and experience. The tragedy of a love extinguished by faith and circumstance is now one culled by sacrifice, a killing of kindness.

Siren’s production is beautifully designed by Monica Frawley (set) and Gaby Rooney (costumes). The language, we know, is timeless. And Power has achieved a remarkable feat in rearranging the notes so that Shakespeare’s rising crescendo becomes a mournful air.

But Director Selina Cartmell approaches the project with the temperament of a woman grown tired of her chosen field. She seems more interested in finding the appropriate visual response to the text, rather than working with Roe and Fouere to find the feeling that could have made this production so devastating.

As is increasingly the case, not only in theatre but also film and TV, directors are loosing their trust in audiences. Unwilling to let them find the tragedy themselves; they draw on music and imagery to tug the heartstrings, to sign post significance and underline emotional responses. Selina Cartmell’s beautifully staged but removed production suffers because it mounts a concept on foundations cracked by her lack of faith in the source material.

There are poignant moments; Juliet’s restrained but piercing recollection of a child lost in infancy; Romeo’s breakfast in bed devotion and the crushing weight terminal illness can bare upon it.

But finding the suitable visual to elucidate the text has always overwhelmed Cartmell’s interest in their actual meaning and the continual setting up of ‘shots’ as a means of empathy, pricks the pace and depletes our connection to the world.

One of the shows most affecting moments-where Romeo carries Juliet to the bathroom and washes her and changes her after she soils herself, is drowned out by the manipulative score and distracts from the raw, uncensored horror and beauty that the moment represents.

It’s a fatal flaw that signifies the primary failing of the production. It romanticises old age and illness rather than humanising it. These two characters are, in many ways, at war with one another. One is fighting for life, the other to die. But what could have been an exploration of devotion, of selfless love, is instead a celebration of the creative teams moxie.

*Owen Roe hasn’t given himself over to a role in recent performances. Rather he has reefed it out and played roughly with its parts, attacking moments of pure emotion with uncontrollable verve then pacing himself during quieter scenes for the next guttural assault. He speaks in a conversational tone, rich as chocolate but with artificial flavor. Feeling flows like a river without the charge of its emotional tributaries as he never explores a character, rather reiterates a general sentiment. It’s always a turn and never the truth, where the words lead you, but the delivery fails to move.

Olwen Fouere is better suited to the director’s aesthetic. Her skill in movement allows her to find a physical depth that complements this new arc of Juliet’s. But she too falls foul of visual and aural gimmicks, playing her illness in such a way that breaks up the verse unnecessarily. We’re not going to forget she’s dying if she stops wheezing to deliver a speech.

But it would be impossible to deny that she is anything short of devastating when left alone with the language. She is desperate, passionate and ravaged by her illness. While she can overdo the manifestations of her disease she never forgets that beneath the cancer is a person, who lives in the language, and each word-spoken exposes mental scars every bit as gut wrenching as the physical ones.

The project intrigues but no lasting truth emerges from the genius of its concept. It hasn’t got the courage to let go of the original context and let us discover a very different type of tale. It’s a bastion of style instead of a study of death and devotion.

*changed from original line which was written as an absolute.

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