It was the greatest ever love story, but what would have happened to Romeo and Juliet if they had lived on into their 70s? Marion McMullen looks at a new RSC play portraying the pair as older lovers.
Romeo is alive and kicking and still madly in love with Juliet. They are now in their 70s and have shared a lifetime together.
Award-winning writer Ben Power’s version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as two older lovers is the starting point of new play A Tender Thing.
Audiences were moved to tears when the production first opened in Newcastle and 52-year-old actor Richard McCabe has returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company to play the world’s most famous lover, with Kathryn Hunter as his Juliet.
“There are lines from Shakespeare, but Romeo and Juliet are no longer impetuous young lovers,” explains Richard, “the words take on a more practical turn. ‘What light through yonder window breaks’ becomes more ‘What light through yonder doorway breaks’ and then a more reasoned ‘Oh, it must be Juliet.’”
RSC Associate Artist Richard adds: “The words people keep using to describe the play are ‘beautiful’ and ‘life-affirming’ and it’s true. It’s how you wish life were and almost never is. I wanted to cry when I first read the script and I had to do the play. It’s about the enduring power of love. There is a tinge of sadness, but it is a beautiful story.”
“Romeo and Juliet are older and more mature, but they are still in love. I’ve lived in Eastbourne for 15 years now and you see older couples like that all the time walking along the pier.”
Ben, who wrote the screenplay for Thea Sharrock’s Henry V and co-adapted the screenplay for Richard II with Rupert Goold for the BBC’s recent Shakespeare Unlocked Season, says A Tender Thing came out of a talk with director Michael Boyd about how to make the poetry of Romeo and Juliet work for older performers.
“I was fascinated to see if it was possible to investigate a very different kind of relationship, a different kind of love, using the words that Shakespeare gave to his teenage protagonists,” he says.
“I wanted to challenge some of the assumptions we make about older people, particularly in terms of their romantic lives, while at the same time making the case that what Shakespeare has written is universal, transcending the specific circumstances of the original play.”
Richard says even the famous balcony scene is given a new twist as the couple revisit it on their anniversary.
“It is about a lifetime of memories and experiences that they have both lived through together,” he points out.
Richard laughingly describes himself as “a theatre animal” and says he is always happiest on stage in front of an audience.