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Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Pericles at the Berkeley Rep

June 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment

My chief scholarly area of interest is performance of early modern English drama, i.e. the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As a theatre historian I am also interested in the conditions under which the drama was originally performed, but for their contemporary applications and not some form of historical purity. Indeed, thinking about it recently I realized that in a lifetime of attending Shakespeare live I have never seen a production that so much as attempted an historically correct (whatever that might mean) re-creation, and aside from a few Zeffirelli movie versions can’t even remember anything set in period, without any lack of enjoyment.

My interest then, is not as a purist, but I confess to a fascination with the issue of how modern productions should interpret, extend and/or adapt the written drama. Are the plays ultimately flexible, i.e. tolerant of any and all performance choices, or are there some boundaries – limits to how far they can stretch without breaking? If the latter, what elements of the plays are the source of their enduring power, therefore vitally important?

The great test case is Pericles – the textually troubled step-child of the canon. The play is Shakespeare’s retelling an ancient folktale about a prince’s odyssey around the Mediterranean in search of his lost wife and daughter. Co-written late in his career this “romance” (in the medieval sense of a journey or quest through a partially supernatural landscape) was never published in an authoritative edition so, even more than with the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no definitive script. It has to be “completed.”

2013-04-20-PE1 David Barlow and Rami Magron as Pericles and the princess of Antioch
Photo courtesy of

That used to be thought such a drawback that the play was rarely produced, but lately it has become one of the chief appeals of the work. To say that Mark Wing-Davey’s relentlessly eclectic adaptation for eight versatile actors at the Berkeley Rep earlier this spring was less a production of, than a riff on, Pericles just means that it was right in vogue. Wing-Davey’s fame rests on his recontextualizing his texts, and this production confirmed his commitment to the bit. Scene after scene revealed wonderful, unanticipated references ranging from a king costumed like an Assyrian relief as channeled by Klimpt to a wicked stepmother who just stepped out of Sunset Boulevard. But however brilliantly matched this director seemed to be to the task, the production didn’t quite come together – for very instructive reasons.

Although often amusing, his strategy was not always illuminating because Wing-Davey seemed to be placing his considerable invention in service of recontextualizing not the play as a whole, but each individual scene. Occasionally, it appeared, even individual lines. The cumulative effect was too many signifiers without much being signified.

The scenes located in an Italian brothel (already relocated from the text’s Mytilene) into which Pericles’ lost daughter is sold, for example, were inexplicably played using broad Lucy-and-Ricky Cuban accents and comic stereotypes. Pericles was clearly on a wide-ranging odyssey, but his trip seemed less a Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey and more like a mashup of Hope-Crosby road movies.

This worked best in a long first act sequence in which the hero, Pericles, entered a tournament where the jousting knights were introduced with classical mottoes but individually materialized (after rapid fire costume changes by the tiny cast) in such whimsical guises as Napoleon and then Batman. After winning the tournament, Pericles proved himself not just the bravest knight but also the most graceful dancer with a decent Justin Timberlake imitation, and then shyly wooed his intended bride at a “crowded,” but literally faceless, banquet created by just four actors playing the throng in triple-wide costumes with extra heads.

We got a glimpse of the process that must have led to the energetic and frequently engaging outcome from the almost defensive playbill that had no less than three separate essays extolling adaptation, including a double page spread about the director’s unconventional rehearsal process. The production was obviously remarkably fluid until quite a late date as the printed program stated it would be performed in ninety minutes without an intermission. It actually ran a full hour longer, not counting the fifteen-minute interval that resulted from a decision clearly reached after the copy deadline.

David Barlow was a convincing Pericles as both a young man, and – after the intermission – a middle aged father. Jessica Kitchens, doubling as the wicked step-mother character Dionyza and Pericles’ faithful wife Thaïsa, exhibited extraordinary range. Annapurna Sriram was affecting as Marina in the “recognition scene,” but only after we had seen her struggle through a couple of bit parts and the most of the rest of her central role. The big name in the cast was Anita Carey who was wasted as a pedestrian Gower. No one in the small ensemble cast made the anticipated impact, because of the expedient decision to edit the number of roles in the play down from roughly 45 to about 15. The expected excitement of watching a small cast tackle this huge sprawling piece with theatrical cunning never materialized, because the directorial decisions eviscerated the script – often (it seemed) precisely to keep the challenge to a mundanely manageable size.

In comparison to last year’s off-Broadway breakout hit Cymbeline by the Fiasco Theater, which used just six actors to tackle an even more convoluted romance, Pericles seemed over-designed and under-“dramaturged.” Fiasco stripped the scenery down to a single (but astonishingly tricky) trunk, and let a cast of six play some fifty roles – often delightfully performing two or three simultaneously. By contrast, Berkeley Rep’s production placed all their bets on spectacle and then constrained the cast in ways that undervalued and under-challenged them.

Scenic designer Douglas Stein constructed a variable and eclectic environment around a huge industrial winch that was used to slight purpose several times early in the play. The pay-off was supposed to be the mystical appearance of Diana in a vision to direct Pericles to the location of his long-lost wife. Oddly, however, when the time came to lower Diana in, the moment was played for comedy. Ridiculing the hoary plot device of the deus ex machine makes some sense, especially when it is so literary a god in a machine, but not when you’ve built the entire production around the physical device delivering it. The outcome read as a poorly executed stage effect rather than any kind of commentary. Meg Neville’s clever costumes fared better, but worked as contemporary commentary on individual characters more than as a unified design.

None of those shortcomings might have made the slightest difference had the story proved compelling, but when the chips were down the old prejudices about the play seemed to have surfaced. Too little faith in the script led to wholesale cutting of the subplots, great and small.

Before the intermission, the chief loss was due to the elimination of Dionyza’s hapless husband Cleon, who serves to push back against her machinations. Incorporating a selection of his lines, she became a more complex and introspective figure, but her Hollywood inspired interiority needed the visual amplification of film to remain interesting once all the actual plotting – both Shakespeare’s and hers – was gone. She was ready for her close-up, but with no Mr. DeMille to deliver it, the narrative ground to a halt.

In the play’s second half, however, the injury was greater. The text places Pericles’ long lost daughter in a brothel in Mytilene where her literally fabulous virtue convinces the town’s governor to reform his licentious ways and ultimately marry her. This production abandoned the latter half of the formula so following his hasty repentance the Governor just disappeared.

After a moving reunion with his daughter in the play’s most famous (and indestructible) scene, and a less emotional, therefore anti-climactic, restoration of the wife Pericles had presumed dead, we arrived at what should have been the triumphant finale of the play. When it came it was, in fact, little more than a ragged tableau. At the end of our journey we were deprived of the wedding that traditionally ends comedies and romances. Instead, the family seemed pointlessly reunited – beautifully posed like refugees from The Grapes of Wrath, but without direction or beckoning future.

Granted the text we have for Pericles is clearly deficient. On a line-for-line basis it undoubtedly needs intervention. Structurally, however, the skeleton that made it Shakespeare’s greatest success during his lifetime is probably preserved even if the exact words are not, and woe to those who ignore it. All those improbable digressions and repetitive subplots turn out to serve a purpose.

What can we conclude from this particular example? I assert that it tells us actors and directors may have a lot of leeway in interpreting, completing, even extending, Shakespeare’s vision, but at least we have established that undercutting his narrative is tricky territory.

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