Who says that there are no parts for the older actress? As the debate about the problems of an ageing population intensifies, opportunities seem to be proliferating. First there was the 75-year- old Judi Dench developing a passion for a donkey less than half her age in Peter Hall's enchanting Midsummer Night's Dream. Now we have the 76-year-old Siâ*Phillips as a heart-stopping Juliet in Juliet and her Romeo, a version of Shakespeare's tragedy that's been heavily reworked (by Tom Morris and co-adaptor Sean O'Connor) to engage with the issues raised by the so-called "grey tsunami". Instead of opposition from the older generation, this Romeo (Michael Byrne) and his Juliet have to contend with the love-thwarting self-interest and prejudices of the younger folk in the shape of a scheming daughter and the medical staff in the care home where they languish.
Still ravishingly beautiful (those facial bones!), Phillips also radiates an inner loveliness as Juliet and speaks the verse with an ardour that takes your breath away, sometimes wittily modifying her delivery to acknowledge the change of circumstance. Her Juliet is a physically frail but spiritually intrepid lady, almost like the ghost of herself in her white nightdress and lace shawl and yet at the same time still situated within a body that she refuses to consign to some socially dictated scrap heap. She conjures a beautiful rapport with the audience that is enhanced by Morris's visually striking production that gives back to the delightful horseshoe-shaped Bristol Old Vic its original forestage, thus allowing Tom Pye's care-home set an almost Citizen Kane-like depth of focus. The wilderness of armchairs in the care home recedes dreamily and drearily right back into the furthest suburbs of the acting space.
I wish that I could be as complimentary about the rest of the proceedings. Watching this well-meant but incoherent – and I'm afraid sophomoric-seeming – farrago, I kept thinking two things. Why not just do the play straight but with elderly actors in the lead parts? That would raise all the "issues" laboriously invoked here with a tacit eloquence. Or why not hire a contemporary dramatist to do a thorough rewrite? Here, we are invited to believe that the play's deadly feud is between those who have private rooms and those who are forced to muck in on the public wards. In order to cope with the medical bills, Juliet's trouser-suited daughter is putting pressure on her to marry the wealthy Paris, a gaga old codger who blunders round the place wearing a medal and holding a bunch of flowers. She has a brother (the Tybalt stand-in) who is also a resident and swipes aside the Zimmer frame of Dudley Sutton's endearingly cherubic Mercutio prior to walloping him fatally with a walking stick.
Nearly every detail grates and fails to convince. Indulgent laughter greets the idea, in the balcony scene, that Michael Byrne's Romeo (who is sympathetic but about as impetuous as a cup of Complan) has scaled walls to get there. The physical relationship is conducted by little chaste, tight-lipped kisses and a show that is designed to stick up for the old comes across as dismayingly juvenile.
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