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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Much ado about India

Much Ado About Nothing, Courtyard Stratford, 11 August 2012

The audience was introduced to the world of the production before setting foot in the auditorium. The foyer of the theatre was festooned with Indian posters, packaging, bicycles and assorted paraphernalia with the intermittent sound of enthusiastic car horns completing the impression of a crowded Indian city.

Once inside, they were greeted by the sight of the yellow-washed exterior of a large house in front of which stood a huge tree whose top branches spread underneath the flies.

Some of the cast milled about the stage before the start engaging with the audience. It fell to Dogberry (Simon Nagra) to request in broken English that phones be switched off.

The authentic localising detail and humour created a thrilling atmosphere of expectation. Leonato (Madhav Sharma) entered in modern Indian dress through the centre aisle with his informative letter. Eyes fixed on Meera Syal’s Beatrice as the moment of her first speech drew closer.

It was therefore a great disappointment to find Meera Syal talking through gritted teeth, deploying a basic set of sitcom grimaces. Depriving Beatrice of dimension, she seemed to be treading the same path as that other mediocre Beatrice delivered by Catherine Tate the previous year in London.

The rest of cast stood motionless raising the terrifying prospect of the following three hours consisting of static blocking and sitcom-level acting.

But all was not lost. A flash of creative intelligence and sensitivity soon provided comfort. Don Pedro’s (Shiv Grewal) Indian army soldiers entered in UN peacekeeper uniforms. Given the contemporary, modern dress setting, the only conflict from which the Indian army could be returning would be Kashmir, implying military action against Pakistan. Given the inclusive nature of the cast and general air of peaceful good vibes, making these soldiers UN peacekeepers avoided possible accusations of insensitivity.

The first meeting between Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Beatrice was still firmly in sitcom mode. The bald Don John (Gary Pillai) made a moderate impact. Claudio (Sagar Arya) seemed suitably earnest in conversation with the slightly greying Benedick. But so far the production had not really found its feet or taken off. However, Benedick did raise a titter describing himself as “Bendy Dick the married man”.

For some reason Meera’s Beatrice improved remarkably in the second act. Gone were the gritted teeth and grimacing as her voice returned to normal (2.1). The women entered wearing berets and army jackets which they had acquired as disguises to wear at the ball. This indicated that they had already been fraternising with the returning soldiers.

Beatrice referred to herself as a maid: the ensuing snigger from Margaret (Chetna Pandya) prompted an “Oi!” of jokey admonishment from Beatrice. Her sarcastic impression of dutiful Hero (Amara Karan) added to the fun atmosphere.

The text was altered so that Beatrice saw a temple, rather than a church, by daylight. But subsequent instances showed that the rewriting of the cultural context was inconsistent.

Everyone cross-dressed at the ball; the women wore their military uniforms with mannish affectations, while the men covered their heads with shawls displaying exaggerated female coyness. Pairs of characters exchanged garlands. When it was Benedick and Beatrice’s turn, they did so sheepishly, hinting at the possibility of the mutual attraction underlying their bickering.

The comedy of the dance sequence contained some funny moments. Margaret made a lewd gesture when speaking to Balthasar (Raj Bajaj) of her “ill qualities” suggesting her availability. Verges (Bharit Patel), a character merged with that of Ursula, caught up with Antonio (Ernest Ignatius) hiding at the edge of the stage and broke out of her manly disguise to accost him.

Having been taunted by Don John and Borachio (Kulvinder Ghir) with the idea that Don Pedro had wooed Hero for himself, the idea was further reinforced when Don Pedro appeared with his arm around Hero as if intimate with her.

When Don Pedro explained what had actually happened, Claudio remained suitably silent.

Meera Syal continued to impress with her moving delivery of “but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” From this point on there was no question over the quality of her performance.

Borachio explained to Don John precisely how he could arrange for Hero to appear unfaithful (2.2). He dry humped Don John when explaining what he would appear to be doing with Margaret.

Inventive

The two gulling scenes are the comic highlights of any Much Ado and this production did not disappoint, even managing to be daringly inventive.

Benedick called on a maid rather than a boy to fetch his book before sitting on a swing hung from the tree to pitch slowly back and forth (2.3).

The maid heartily joined in a Bhangra version of Sigh No More as Benedick climbed the tree to access the balcony and then listened from the top of house. After trying unsuccessfully to give the book to Benedick, the Maid was drawn into the action so that she acted Beatrice’s pretended part in the gullers’ account, describing her purported love for Benedick.

Despite its attempts to rewrite the cultural context of the play, the production kept the phrase “Christian-like fear” in this scene, which must have defied attempts at rewriting.

The Maid threw herself into this role with gusto as she cried and beat the ground in a simulation of Beatrice’s supposed frustration. When she cried “O sweet Benedick” the man himself cried out “Beatrice” from above, but was not noticed.

When Beatrice delivered the dinner invitation she began to say “I am sent…” but her voice trailed off when she saw Benedick’s peculiarly attentive way of looking at her. For some odd reason his “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” was retained.

The sequence involving Beatrice was particularly ingenious (3.1). Beatrice was ushered in by Margaret and sat at the bottom of the tree with a towel round her head and depilatory cream on her upper lip. She then overheard Verges using the speakerphone on her mobile to have a conversation with Hero (visible within the house) about Benedick’s hidden love for Beatrice.

Beatrice did not remain out of sight, but instead caught Verges’ eye, making it plain that she understood the tenor of the discussion. The embarrassed Verges began to defend Beatrice to Hero, using the phrase “O, do not your cousin such a wrong” effectively changing sides. This was a remarkable use of the original text which was able to slot perfectly into this most unusual reading of the situation.

Verges’ “I pray you, be not angry with me, madam” was said to Beatrice and not Hero, communicating Verges’ sudden guilt at the discovery of their subterfuge. Beatrice then gestured at Verges to be critical of Hero, so she asked her “When are you married, madam?” in an supercilious tone.

Once the game was over, Beatrice wiped the cream from her lip and removed the towel from her head, looking extremely crestfallen at the realisation of how she was seen.

Benedick sported a new look wearing a green dressing gown with his hair dyed, all of which made him almost unrecognisable (3.2). His remade image fully justified Leonato’s comment “He looks younger than he did”.

Don John’s reveal of Hero’s unfaithfulness was very snide. Claudio jostled him, prompting Don John’s retort “So will you say when you have seen the sequel”, implying that Claudio would be angry when he knew the truth. After this, the interval came.

The second half began with Beatrice singing a soulful version of Sigh No More, first in Hindi and then in English (3.3).

The watch, including George Seacole (Rudi Dharmalingam) and Hugh Oatcake (Muzz Khan) wore comical hats and were led by Dogberry who put a hard “k” at the start of “knave” so that he pronounced it “ker-nave”. He pointed a torch at the audience scanning for a thief and scared the watch into attacking him when he returned unexpectedly to have his “one word more”.

Rain fell as Borachio told Conrade (Neil D’Souza) about his profitable skulduggery. The watch observed the pair at a distance while one of them approached and held an umbrella over Borachio undetected. So perfect was this watchman’s invisibility that Borachio urinated over him when caught short.

Finally challenged by the watch, Borachio and Conrade were so drunk that they surrendered without a fight.

Hero and Margaret sat under the tree on a platform which had been introduced for the second half, preparing for Hero’s wedding day (3.4). The scene was interrupted as the platform went dark making way for the scene between Leonato and Dogberry on the main part of the stage (3.5). Dogberry gold-plated his malapropism by mispronouncing it “con-fie-dence”. Don John watched this all the while from the gallery.

Wedding

Hero’s wedding saw the theatre transformed (4.1). Strings of lights festooned the galleries, and everything glowed with the full colour of a Hindi wedding. Three couples were brought from the audience to sit on cushions to fill out the number of guests on stage. Music played and the whole audience was encouraged to clap along.

The entry of the bride was a breathtaking moment. Hero appeared in a splendid dress looking like a princess. A Panditji (Robert Mountford), the production’s Indian priest, began to perform the wedding ceremony. A handheld microphone was passed around to those speaking to amplify their voices.

Claudio took the microphone and spoke into it to reject Hero. The devastating impact of his words on the sumptuous ceremony meant that there was no need for him to throw her to the ground: she looked totally discarded anyway, the tears in her eyes contrasting with the splendour of her surroundings.

The build-up to the wedding had been made as protracted, colourful and joyous as possible so that its unravelling would feel all the more devastating. The implosion of this scene powered the rest of the second half with all the characters being carried along in its blast wave.

Don John sat nearest to Hero, looking on, like a venomous spider at the centre of a web. Leonato mistook Claudio’s initial objection for a confession that he had already slept with Hero and was quite funny and pally trying to convince him that this was not an obstacle. Tellingly, Benedick’s joke “This looks not like a nuptial” was cut to remove any humour that might deflate the sense of disaster.

Leonato’s fury at Hero was restrained. He brought his hand close to her, but the gesture was weak and did not look really threatening. But he seemed determined to vent his anger at someone.

In wake of Claudio’s bombshell, Beatrice and Benedick drew together as she placed her head in his lap overcome with shock. Only the Panditji offered a calm perspective and eventually proposed a solution.

Beatrice and Benedick sat close on the swing. Her demand that Benedict kill Claudio got a laugh, but the line was delivered in all seriousness and should have been greeted by gasps.

The earnestness of her request was underlined by the way she tussled with him when saying that Claudio was her enemy, and by the depth of feeling behind her desire to “eat his heart in the market-place”.

Dogberry brought together his “dissembly” in front of the Sexton (Peter Singh) (4.2). Borachio and Conrade were presented tied back to back, the awkwardness of which resulted in them ending up one on top of the other when presented to the Sexton on the platform. The accused men looked gutted on hearing of Hero’s death.

Leonato caught up with Don Pedro and Claudio as they were leaving his house with their kitbags in uniform (5.1). Despite Leonato presenting a very good impression of an angry man, Claudio was not fazed by his aggression.

Benedick, on the other hand, posed a more serious threat. He was very serious about his challenge to Claudio and had considerably manned-up. This transformation is difficult to get right if Benedick has up to now been portrayed as a clownish figure.

Dogberry brought in Borachio and Conrade while Leonato and Antonio entered down the centre aisle to see Borachio. Don Pedro and Claudio faced away from Borachio, but Leonato stood between them “a pair of honourable men” and accused them of being jointly responsible for the tragedy, prompting them to turn around.

Benedick sung tunelessly to Margaret before his romantic encounter with Beatrice (5.2). Beatrice possessed some of her former sharpness. They sat on the swing as he held her hand asking her to “Serve God, love me and mend”. The comedy of Benedick’s enthusiasm to be, among other things, buried in Beatrice’s eyes, was subdued in keeping with the increasing seriousness of their attachment.

The production’s coup de théâtre involved the set, which had hitherto represented the façade of a house, folding back to reveal a burning funeral pyre underneath a tower structure, possibly attached to a temple, on which Hero had apparently been cremated (5.3).

Mourners stood around looking sombre under their umbrellas in the rain, including a distraught Claudio who read aloud his praises. The song “Pardon, goddess of the night” was sung by someone else on top of the tower above the pyre.

The action remained at the temple for the second wedding (5.4). Women entered from upstage under veils. Hero was unmasked but Claudio’s surprise at seeing her again after her cremation was strangely muted.

When Benedick enquired which of the veiled women was Beatrice, she realised what he was planning, turned and ran away. But she was swiftly brought back, in all likelihood quite willingly. Letters were produced so that each could read proof that the other loved them.

Leonato said “Peace! I will stop your mouth” and brought them together to kiss. This was as per the Quarto text and Arden 3, but still very unusual to see.

The performance concluded with lively dancing continuing the festive atmosphere.

Conclusions

Plays become classics by transcending their culture of origin and are therefore able to slip free from all subsequently imposed cultural contexts.

This production demonstrated how a cultural relocation can easily be trumped and overshadowed by the genius of the play itself. It came as no surprise that this love story could survive relocation to India. After a while the Indian setting took second place to situation and character.

But only up to a point. Hero’s rejection exploded like a bombshell amid a gloriously beautiful wedding scene, giving that moment a traumatic power that most productions rarely achieve. The aftershock reverberated through the remainder of play. This effect could have been achieved in a number of ways but it fell to this Indian adaptation to demonstrate that the bigger the build-up to the wedding, the starker the impact of its interruption.