An open stage

Pericles, Courtyard Theatre Stratford, 5 October 2012

A large cast of talented and experienced amateurs worked together with two RSC directors (James Farrell and Jamie Rocha-Allan) to present the “fourth part” of the RSC shipwreck trilogy under the auspices of the company’s Open Stages project. Four performances with a runtime of 90 minutes and no interval took place from 5-7 October 2012 in the Courtyard Theatre.

The audience on this particular night was quite small, the stalls were fairly full, but the galleries were mostly empty. The atmosphere was very intense with family and friends in attendance to support the ensemble.

The set consisted of a diagonally slanted back wall reminiscent of the side of a massive ship. A short, square tunnel section extended from the centre, its roof accessible via a doorway in the wall. The thrust was bare up to its front edge where a fringe of sand indicated the margin of the sea.

The role of Gower was split between 15 of the cast (all with other roles) so that his choric summaries of the action came from a vast group.

The sound of waves breaking on the shore covered scene changes. The stage hands moving props would often pause, move back and then forward again in rhythm with the wave sounds so that their intrusions became part of the fabric of the production.

The unravelling by Pericles (Sope Dirisu) of the incest riddle was a wonderfully creepy scene (1.1). Hesperides (Lauren Moakes), in pigtails, skirt and long white stockings, was made to stand on a plinth to read the riddle from a plastic sheet by her father Antiochus (Nick Quartley). Plastic bags filled with raw human flesh hung menacingly above the stage as a reminder to Pericles of the price of failing to unravel the puzzle.

Having solved the riddle and fled back to Tyre, Pericles found himself among his revelling friends (1.2).

Juliet Grundy as a female Helicanus dried a few times in this scene and later in the performance too. She struggled to remember her lines, but the entire auditorium willed her to succeed in moments of breathtaking tension. Even professionals dry occasionally. So high was the general standard of performance that this hiccup was one of the very few indications that we were watching an amateur cast.

Pericles still feared for his safety and set sail for Tarsus. The scene there was one of opulence ruined by famine (1.4). A long table stood diagonally across the stage with Cleon (James Wolstenholme) at one end and Dionyza (Louise Fulwell) at the other. Candelabra and ornate table decorations indicated the expectation of plenty, but the servants brought them dishes that were uncovered to reveal empty plates. Just downstage from them, a ragged starveling illustrated the even greater suffering of the populace.

Pericles arrived bringing plentiful supplies of bread, which he handed out from his shoulder bag.

The multiple Gower chorus narrated the story of how Helicanus had informed Pericles of Thaliard’s (Bill Handley) plan to kill him, as well as Pericles’ onward journey and the shipwreck that pitched him up on the coast of Pentapolis (2.0).

After retrieving his armour from the fishing net, the fishermen (Mary Kalunga-Eade, Richard Shields and Alastair McPhail) escorted Pericles to the court (2.1). This was a modern place with besuited Simonides’ (Stephen Bridgen) every moment being shadowed by an iPad-toting personal assistant – the 1st Lord – who busied herself with arranging the upcoming tournament (2.2).

Ragged

The knights queued stage right and were checked in one-by-one, their mottos translated into English. Pericles, ragged after the shipwreck and thus a great contrast to the business wear vibe of the court, sneaked in from stage left, snatching an almost bare twig to present as his token.

The tournament was a four-way fight with the knights letting fly with baseball bats, nunchaku and fists. Pericles used his bare hands and emerged the victor.

The wonderfully patrician Simonides needed some encouragement to accept Thaisa’s (Imogen Hartley) choice of Pericles as her husband. But it became apparent that behind his paternal bluster he was secretly glad of Pericles’ interest in his daughter. When they finally declared their love, he encouraged them lustily to go to bed (2.3+2.5 with 2.4 cut).

The Gower chorus acted out the second shipwreck in which Marina was born (3.0). Lychordia (Sue White) nursed the baby, explaining to Pericles that Thaisa had died (3.1). The burial at sea was not shown, but Thaisa’s coffin did turn up in 3.2 when it was discovered by Cerimon (Peter Malin). The box was carried on stage and opened. Cerimon applied something to Thaisa and she awoke in a confused state demanding to know where she was.

Pericles entrusted baby Marina to Cleon and Dionyza (3.3) and the revitalised Thaisa became a votaress at Diana’s temple (3.4).

Gower narrated the story of Marina’s (Chloe Orrock) progress into early adulthood, which was symbolised by her appearing behind her nurse Lychorida, taking the bundle of cloth that had represented her as a baby and wearing it around her. She played games and studied alongside Cleon and Dionyza’s own daughter Philoten, receiving praise from her teacher and attention from young men (4.0).

The deliciously cruel Dionyza with her distinctive black bob ordered Leonine (Neil Jackson) to murder Marina to prevent her overshadowing Philoten (4.1).

Leonine took Marina for a walk, and she turned to see him with a short length of rope pulled taught between his hands ready to throttle her. She was saved by the pirates (Julian Small, Nick Lancaster and Daniel Gough) lurking in the shadows who came forward to abduct her.

A line of bored prostitutes sat and watched television on a long sofa as the action moved to the Mytilene brothel (4.2). A girl in shorts used the remote control to channel surf as the others, including a particularly old one, stared expressionless at the screen.

When Marina was introduced to this, her new home, the Bawd (Jane Durant) attempted to make her trashier by pulling her dress off one shoulder. But this did nothing to spoil her essential wholesomeness.

Back at Tarsus, Cleon and Dionyza now sat at the same table as before but this time groaning under the weight of vast quantities of food (4.3). But despite this bounty they were not happy. Cleon was aghast at the crimes that his wife had just confessed to: the murder of both Marina and her assassin Leonine. Scene 4.4 was cut.

Two brothel customers put on their shoes as they discussed the wonder of the new girl that preached divinity at them instead of “serving” them (4.5). The local governor Lysimachus (Nathan Hawthorne), a young man with an air of confident authority, apparently used to getting what he wanted, made himself at home by taking off his jacket and tie. He insisted that Marina be brought to him. The Bawd, Bolt (Tim Younger) and Pander (Chris Clarke) were hopeful that she would finally agree to “do the deeds of darkness”.

Marina resisted the governor’s advances and firmly insisted that he behave honourably as befitted his position. A brief jingle played on a xylophone as Marina began to speak in her defence. The origin and significance of this sound became apparent later on.

Virtue

Lysimachus was moved by her speech, gave her a wad of notes and vowed to do only good to her. His reason for relenting was that Marina was obviously well brought up: “a piece of virtue” whose “training hath been noble”.

The scene became quite sinister when the Bawd instructed Bolt to “Crack the glass of her virginity and make the rest malleable”.

Bolt was left alone with Marina, who in addition to deploying her skills in rhetoric, also gave Bolt a swift knee to the crotch. The uptown girl had acquired some distinctly downtown moves.

The defeated Bolt asked Marina what she would have him do, whereupon she decided that she would like to teach, with the brothel earning a share of her fees.

The Gower chorus explained that Pericles was travelling again by sea (5.0). His black hair was grizzled and grey to indicate the passage of time during which Marina had grown up. He sat despondent on a chair, hunched with his back to the audience (5.1). Lysimachus tried to raise his spirits and sent for Marina to engage him in conversation.

Without being introduced by name or mentioning it herself, Marina alluded to her troubled past and noble breeding as a way of convincing Pericles that she could empathise with his situation, stressing that they were essentially similar. The ensuing question and answer session gradually led into the joyful revelation that she was his daughter Marina.

When Pericles became aware that Lysimachus and Marina had an attachment, his “Who is this?” had an air of comical quizzicality about it, as if he had gone automatically into concerned father mode, screening his daughter’s boyfriends as if by primordial instinct.

Pericles then heard a xylophone just as Marina had done earlier and felt drowsy. In a very clever effect, he fell to the ground as if entering deep sleep. But at that instant the lighting immediately changed and he appeared spotlit and bolt upright, while all those around him slumped to the ground asleep. This put the audience inside the reality of the vision he was about to experience.

Diana (Bethany Reilly) stood on the roof of the tunnel surrounded by intermittently flashing light tubes to tell Pericles that he should go to her temple at Ephesus and recount the story of his adventures to the people there. Once the vision ended, normality was restored and Pericles awoke. But for the duration of the vision, his dream state was presented from the inside as an awake state.

The fact that Diana’s visitation was accompanied by the xylophone sound retrospectively explained the source of Marina’s inspiration when fending off Lysimachus’ dishonourable advances.

At the temple itself, Diana stood in the shadows as Pericles and party arrived. He retold the history of his travels to Cerimon and the nuns (5.3). Thaisa immediately fainted on recognising him. Diana stood on the statue plinth and adopted a pose when Pericles offered thanks for her intervention. Thaisa was reunited with Marina and her marriage to Lysimachus was announced in a joyous happy ending (they looked a nice couple), with the Gower chorus reminding us that the murderous Cleon and Dionyza had been killed by their outraged subjects.

Conclusions

This “amateur” production raised some interesting questions about the precise definition of the term. If an amateur actor is one with no formal training and for whom acting is not their principal employment, then that label would apply equally well to Stephen Fry and other entertainers who have sneaked into the profession by the backdoor.

The stage is frequently graced by actors who have won critical acclaim by having their raw talent shaped under professional guidance. So if Lenny Henry can do this, why not bin men and solicitors as was the case here?

Was there a halo effect from seeing these performances at the RSC in a professional theatre environment, with its high-end set and lighting etc? Would these very performances have registered at the same level if played in a cramped fringe venue? Or did these amateur actors in fact substantially raise their game in response to their august surroundings?

What is certain is that the production made absolutely the right decision in casting student Sope Dirisu in the central role of Pericles. He was a considerable talent whose captivating performance did much to raise the whole level of the enterprise.

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