Please note: This review contains SPOILERS.
A Tender Thing is a gutwrenching hour and a half. It’s utterly beautiful, packs a powerful emotional punch without becoming mawkish, and manages to be both poetic and real at the same time. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one in the grip of a fatal illness will find it tough to watch because Kathryn Hunter and Richard McCabe are so devastatingly believable.
McCabe and Hunter play versions of the Romeo and Juliet characters with which we are familiar, and as with that story, this one is never going to have a happy ending. However, the moving love story here features older protagonists – a married couple who are still very much in love, coming to terms with Juliet’s illness. This seems to begin with a stroke, after which she rapidly deteriorates until she is wheelchair- and then bed-bound, being fed and washed by Romeo. It’s difficult to watch, but Hunter and McCabe have such tender, understated chemistry that it is also life-affirming.
Eventually, Juliet begs McCabe’s Romeo to help end her suffering by bringing her some poison. It touches on one of the biggest moral questions of our age in the gentlest of ways. There is no heavy-handed moralising, just a woman suffering and a loving husband watching her suffer. He has the power to help end that suffering, or to indulge his selfish but understandable desire to keep her alive for as long as possible. It’s a decision no-one wants to have to make, and one that writer Ben Power shows both characters wrestling with.
Power’s script is a remarkable thing. Combining large portions of the original text of Romeo and Juliet with snippets from other plays and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and his own words, Power has woven a powerful love story. By focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, Power has a subtlety and flair that makes the story all the more powerful. Helena Kaut-Howson directs these two fantastic actors with a surety. Every look, every touch, every dance and every fall convey the depth of their love, and the depth of their loss. Hunter’s physicality is, as ever, astonishing. She appears to literally waste away over the course of the production, becoming smaller and more feeble with each scene.
John Woolf’s music is an epic, sweeping elegy for love and loss that manages to avoid sentimentality. It’s sad, yes, but not in a fetishistic way. The focus remains, rightly, on the two lovers, and Hunter is well-matched at every turn by the gentle, conflicted McCabe as her Romeo. There are occasional moments when it slips into being over the top, but they are fleeting and easily forgiven when weighted against the rest of this sublimely human production.
I urge you to see it, but make sure you’ve got a handbag full of tissues.
A Tender Thing is at the Swan Theatre until 20 October. For more information visit www.rsc.org.uk.