The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.025 Monday, 1 February 2016
Date: January 30, 2016 at 9:49:32 AM EST
Subject: From TLS - 'Emotional stranglehold'
Emotions in stranglehold
William Shakespeare and George Wilkins
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, until April 21
The current season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse deserts the intriguing Jacobean and Caroline curios of the previous two years for something more familiar. “Winter Shakespeare” presents four of the “late” plays – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – omitting the collaborations with John Fletcher that occupied Shakespeare’s final years: Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Part of the considerable allure of this season is the chance to see these plays by candlelight. The late plays are often associated with the indoor Blackfriars playhouse, used by the King’s Men in tandem with the outdoor Globe from late 1609 or early 1610. This is somewhat misleading, given that Pericles was first performed around 1607–08. However, there was probably little difference between the Globe and Blackfriars repertories in the 1610s; it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Dominic Dromgoole’s Pericles feels wholly at home in the Wanamaker while, conversely, Sam Yates’s Cymbeline sometimes feels confined by it.
Both productions make use of the full auditorium in terms of their staging, repeatedly placing actors in the area in front of the stage and in the walkway leading to the foyer. However, the lighting for Cymbeline is more centred on the stage: most of the lights are placed on or above it, and in the first half a set of trays with candles act almost as conventional spotlights. The action thus feels more restricted, though this sensation is exploited to great effect in the battles of the second half, which constantly give the impression that they might explode beyond the stage’s confines.
One of the sternest challenges for a director staging Cymbeline is knowing quite what to do with its humour – are the characters in on the joke? Or are they blissfully unaware of their own potential absurdity? With its gleefully wicked stepmother, lost children and host of reversals and revelations, it is not always easy to know whether one is laughing at or with Cymbeline. And despite some striking moments, Yates’s production seems not yet to have worked out fully where it stands.
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In contrast, Pericles emerges in Dromgoole’s vibrant production as a bravura piece of storytelling. It opens with the entire cast either on or around the stage, singing and talking to audience members. The cast then blow out the candles, and Sheila Reid’s kindly, bird-like Gower emerges from the trapdoor, taper in hand, to introduce the oppressive court of the incestuous king Antiochus (Simon Armstrong). The two storm scenes, the second of which separates Pericles (James Garnon) temporarily from his wife Thaisa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) when she appears to die in childbirth, are staged with economy and flair. The first leaves Pericles tangled in rigging, suspended above the stage, in which undignified position he is found by the fishermen whose humour first helps to dispel the aura of Antiochus’s court. The second uses simple means – a plank thrust out from the stage into the auditorium, a sail stretched across the centre of the stage, a welter of drums and swaying actors – to support and sustain the raw emotion of Pericles’s reaction to Thaisa’s death.
Where the production succeeds most brilliantly, however, is in the scenes featuring Pericles and Thaisa’s daughter, Marina (Jessica Baglow). Carried away from certain death by a pack of energetic pirates, Marina is deposited in the brothel at Mytilene, where she proceeds to convert all its customers to “honest” behaviour, much to the disgust of Kirsty Woodward’s Bawd, Fergal McElherron’s Pander and Dennis Herdman’s Bolt. Woodward, McElherron and Herdman almost steal the show, riffing on Shakespeare and George Wilkins’s lines with easy confidence and creating an effortlessly sleazy backdrop for Marina’s miracles. Dromgoole also handles Marina’s conversion of the governor of Mytilene, Lysimachus (Steffan Donnelly), with a sure hand. Many recent productions of Pericles have distrusted the original text, in which Marina’s speeches are comparatively brief, and they have often supplemented it with material taken from Wilkins’s “novelization”, The Painful Adventures of Pericles, published in 1608, shortly before the play itself. In these adaptations, Marina is given far more to say, but her conversion of Lysimachus depends on her making herself abject: “O my good lord”, she tells him, “kill me but not deflower me / Punish me how you please but spare my chastity”. Although Dromgoole takes some four or five lines from Painful Adventures, Baglow’s Marina does not weep or abase herself; instead, she takes Lysimachus’s hand and then places her hand on his chest, a gesture that she repeats in her later conversion of Bolt. Crucially, Lysimachus is unusually young and, apparently, sexually inexperienced, and his response to Marina’s words and gestures is to collapse and sob violently.
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