Pericles, Prince of Tyre
By William Shakespeare
UNB Theatre ("the Bawdy Shoppe Productions," aka English 2170)
Since the eighteenth century there have been people who've said that Shakespeare was a wonderful poet but really didn't know how to write a play. They would have their case clinched (at least the part about not knowing how to write a play) by Pericles, Prince of Tyre -- if only it were really clear that it had actually been written by Shakespeare. It's so peculiar that many theatre companies have taken it on as a sort of challenge in stagecraft and convention. This has been especially true since Brecht and his "epic theatre," and other modern playwrights and directors, have made it almost conventional to flout dramatic conventions by introducing narrators, mime, peripatetic stories and picaresque heroes, and other "alienating" devices to warn us that this is, after all, theatre and storytelling, not an image of reality. So, although the eighteenth century -- and many critics and theatregoers since -- have found Pericles just a bit non-dramatic, and more than just a bit unmanageable on a stage, in the last few decades there's been increasing interest in the script. Not least, of course, because Shakespeare continues to sell at the box office, and there are only so many plays associated with his name.
But when you come right down to it, it's one of the sillier stories ever put on stage -- involving boat trips all over the known world, two -- count 'em, two -- storms at sea, one intervention by pirates, one miraculous recovery from the dead, two -- count 'em, two -- recognition scenes in which our hero discovers a daughter and a wife, both long thought dead, extensive interventions by a sententious narrator who begs our indulgence for the disjointedness of the story and promises us to wind it all up tout suite, incest published horribly, betrayal punished horribly, loyal servants rewarded handsomely, virtue and perseverance suffering piteously and at the end rewarded and celebrated in the most improbable ways.
So when we went off to the UNB production Friday night we expected, at the very least, that it wouldn't -- it couldn't -- simply be a straight-ahead undergraduate-cast Shakespeare production, with declamations and tableaux, involving two or three students who can make sense out of a Shakespehearean rag and a crowd who dutifully recite the pentameter at the rafters and stand about between times with nothing much to do.
And it wasn't. It was probably the most imaginative use I've ever seen made of the absolutely resistant and noncompliant (and obdurately anti-theatrical) Memorial Hall. Len Falkenstein (whose idea this all seems to have been) and Mike Johnston (technical director) transformed the place. Let's see, how to explain. Normally, at one end of the barn there's a high, isolated proscenium stage, about four feet above the unraked house, where an audience seated in rows gapes up at the spectacle. At the other end is a balcony, two or three rows deep, above a flat back wall pierced by a sort of tunnel to the lobby (the main entrance), directly above which, over the entrance and splitting the balcony, is a control booth.
For this production, however, there was a playing space which extended from the center part of the stage, down a step or two to another, slightly lower, rectangular playing area, down another step to the floor, where there was another playing area, perhaps 8 X 10, then up a step to a smaller rectangular platform, then up a step to another one, and finally up a substantial ladder to the top of the balcony rail, behind and above which there was suspended a wonderful oriental gong. The audience was seated along each side, including three rows on each side of the stage.
What this achieved was to break down the powerful split between production and audience (regularly, in this house, directors have tried to do this by putting steps down from the stage and having entrances occur from the house, but in most cases what this has actually done is remind the audience of the separation, because the stage is just so bloody elevated). For Pericles, the players entered from five quite separate locations -- from backstage, from the shadows down at the sides of the actual stage, from that main entrance at the back, around the ladder, and from the back of the balcony. This meant that the spatial relations between company and audience were flexible and changeable; individual scenes might start on stage, and proceed gradually down to the floor-level playing area, and up the other side. Or vice versa. For this play, with its sequence of disconnected and spatially (and often temporally) removed scenes, it worked exceptionally well.
And the problem of the obtrusive narrator was solved, as well, in part by casting and in part by blocking. The narrator, Gower, was played by a tall, willowy blonde named Sarah Steeves, who was easily the best speaker of Elizabethan language in the production, and also the most striking figure, in her slinky black gown. Even better, she moved back and forth between the stage and the playing area, spending most of the production regally seated at the top of the ladder, on the balcony rail, her hand on a mallet, with which she punctuated, on the gong, the end of most scenes. If you're going to have an obtrusive narrator, the production said, let's bite the bullet and have her be completely dominant.
Other good things about the production included the opening -- the audience wasn't admitted until ten to eight, and as we found our way through the curtains hung across under the ladder and into a haze of theatrical fog, we encountered most of the cast walking about playing phrases on the flute, or picking a few notes off an autoharp, or clinking some wooden wind chimes, and generally creating an atmosphere of mystery and expectancy. And the provision of four or five small high tables among the audience, each adorned with a number of candles, helped as well (though they, and the fog, probably added to the traditional stifling heat of Memorial Hall). Perhaps the best thing about the production was evident from the first moment -- the almost flamboyant way the cast (and the tightly designed lighting) used the whole of the space, keeping the audience's attention swinging back and forth from stage to the central playing area to the top of the balcony.
There were problems, too, however. The most serious was that almost no one in the cast really could make the Elizabethan (if not quite, mostly, Shakespearean) language sing, and only a few could make it comprehensible, a problem probably not helped by the staging, in which the actors didn't have the chance to face the audience, set themselves, and project. (Not that I'd have preferred that; after a while I got used to treating the language as though it were, say, Italian, and picking up my cues from staging and Gower's impeccable diction.) Perhaps the most disappointing element was that Justin Matchett, who played Pericles, was pretty much incomprehensible most of the time.
There were a number of moments when characters got the bit in their teeth, made real sense of their lines, and made us feel things. Alex Baird as the wonderfully wicked Dionyza (and as well, playing males as a Minion of Antioch and a wonderfully supercilious Knight of Athens) was regularly well-defined, clear, and focused. And Karen Buchanan as the Bawd, with whip and mesh stockings (and as a Fisherman as well) was lively and amusing.
But most of the time it wasn't about Elizabethan language; it was about body language, and on the whole the cast was confident, energetic, and aggressive, and managed to keep us engaged the whole time. Even when we're having to deal with the script's vast improbabilities and wonderful inconsistencies -- for instance, Pericles has to find his long-lost daughter and fall asleep within about three minutes ("It nips me unto listening, and thick slumber / Hangs upon mine eyes: let me rest," he says) and the folks standing around, including the long-lost daughter, have simply to walk away and let him rest ("A pillow for his head: / So, leave him all," says Lysimachus). "What's our motivation here?" does not seem really the appropriate question.
But, as Brecht might have said, it's not necessarily the most important question, either: this is a story, folks, and the people at UNB told it in fine style.