What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t died inside the Capulet vault? That is exactly what British playwright Ben Power re-imagines with A Tender Thing, the opener for United Players of Vancouver’s 2019-2020 season.
Rather than taking their own lives as in the original, in A Tender Thing the two star-crossed lovers have grown old together. Using Shakespeare’s words, Power has remixed the Bard’s original work and added some of his sonnets to create a different love story, one in which a lifetime together comes to a close with an entirely different ending.
“Power not only uses the text from the characters Romeo and Juliet but text from Friar Lawrence, the Nurse, and even Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is given to Juliet,” explains director Sarah Rodgers. “I love that he gives this gift to the actress.”
“There will be some purists who are unhappy because it’s not Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet but I think Ben Power has done an excellent job of highlighting the themes in the play,” adds Denyse Wilson, who plays Juliet. “So much so I’ve gotten excited about Shakespeare again, and Romeo and Juliet in particular. He has made a beautiful collage out of a perfect work of art.”
Rodgers agrees, seeing the brilliance in the work coming in its appeal to both those familiar with the original work and those who are not.
“It works as a complete story all in its own for those people who have not studied Shakespeare’s text but also for those scholarly Shakespeare enthusiasts,” she says. “They will take delight in showing off their expertise in picking out the sonnets and Nurse’s speeches and the surprising reassignment of text. For those really astute, they will even recognize Romeo speaking some of Juliet‘s original lines. It is an incredible remix.”
A two-hander, Rodgers has brought together both Wilson and another veteran actor, Troy Skog, back to the stage after several years absence. Both have their own history in performing Shakespeare’s original.
“It has been 18 years since I was last acting Shakespeare,” says Wilson. “I fell into motherhood. I have three boys and one stepson. My champions Douglas Campbell and Antony Holland passed away and my mother died suddenly which took the wind out of my sails but now along comes Sarah to bring me back. I’m very grateful.”
Known in Vancouver theatre circles for her work with Bard on the Beach and other local companies, Wilson’s first time with Romeo and Juliet arrived straight out of theatre school in the role of Juliet at Carousel Theatre. She would again perform in the play, this time as Lady Capulet, for Bard on the Beach in 1993.
“I literally watched her play every young Shakespeare heroine and knew she had the vulnerability, tenderness, and incredible dexterity with the language,” says Rodgers.
Another of Rodgers dream players, Skog is also a past Bard on the Beach actor, as well as The Shaw Festival, before going onto a career teaching theatre in both New York and Toronto. As with his co-star in A Tender Thing, Skog’s is no stranger to Romeo and Juliet, having played Mercutio in a 1995 production at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre.
“It is a privilege and a dream to watch these artists work daily,” says Rodgers.
Along with nudging Wilson and Skog back to the stage, Rodgers has also assembled a team of younger theatre artists with movement from Kayla Dunbar, sound design from Julie Casselman, and Brad Trenaman doing lighting.
“Through Kayla we have explored a dance of care-giving and found a beautiful vocabulary of tender, loving movement,” says Rodgers. “I am also so excited to have Julie Casselman composing all the music for the show. Julie was the Jessie nominated sound designer/composer for my The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at Pacific Theatre.”
A Tender Thing plays the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) September 6-29. Visit unitedplayers.com for tickets and information.