Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers start to act their age

Bold version of 'Romeo and Juliet' transposes roles of parents and children

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is... a pensioner. It's all right, though, because in this version of Romeo and Juliet, which begins at Britain's oldest theatre this week, the star-cross'd lovers are both in their eighties and living in a care home.

The Bristol Old Vic, in its first show after closing in 2007 amid financial crisis, is producing one of Shakespeare's best-known plays – but one in which the parents and children are transposed.

Rather than the long family rivalry of Montague and Capulet, it is their children who block their marriage on social grounds: Juliet is a private patient while Romeo is in the home courtesy of the NHS.

In the original tragedy, Juliet's plan to fake her own death to avoid marrying Paris, her parents' choice, goes wrong when a banished Romeo returns and, thinking her dead, kills himself. Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself in the heart.

The veteran actors taking the leads in Juliet and Her Romeo say the age switch makes the play more poignant. It is also more relevant to our times – with a burgeoning elderly population and well-meaning children who have to care for them, but fail to recognise they still have their own lives to lead.

Siâ*Phillips, 76, is playing Juliet for the first time in her long career. "I was dumbstruck when I was offered the role," she said last night. "But the love story really does work. The children try to organise her life, and she doesn't fall into it.

"We are all very concerned about care homes, what happens to the people in them, and how we look after older people. And since I started doing this, a lot of people have told me stories of elderly people who have found love for the first time."

Michael Byrne, 66, most recently seen as Gail Platt's father in Coronation Street, is Romeo. "It brings new things out in the text," he said. "When Romeo says he 'never saw true beauty until this night', it adds a new depth to the play and is extraordinarily moving. Romeo is on the NHS, and her family would much prefer Juliet married Paris, who has a suite in the care home. But it's also about how we are going to support care today."

The age switch was the brainwave of the theatre's new artistic director Tom Morris, an associate director of the National Theatre.

Abigail Thaw, 41, who plays Ms Capulet, Juliet's daughter, said that she also found the play much more moving this way round. "It works very well," she said. "You are seeing people fall in love at an old age, at the end of their lives, and you know it's their last chance for happiness."

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