By William Shakespeare
Directed by Geoff Allen
Summer Shakespeare 2014
Old Arts Quad, University of Auckland | February 28-March 22
On paper, Pericles, Prince of Tyre looks like an odd choice for Auckland University’s annual Summer Shakespeare production. It’s not particularly well-known, I doubt anybody would count it among their favourite Shakespeare plays, and the authorship of the play is disputed and doubted, although it is contained in most Complete Works published today. My own familiarity with the play is limited, having only skimmed through it once as a teenager on the way to better known plays while reading all of the Bard’s works.
Another reason Pericles is an odd choice for a Summer Shakespeare production is that it’s not a particularly good play. It tells the story of Pericles, a man who figures out a King’s depraved riddle and has to go on the run, but a storm wrecks his ship and washes him up on the shore of another kingdom.
Pericles has none of the compelling, universal family drama of King Lear, none of the convoluted whimsy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, none of the lovelorn banter of Much Ado About Nothing, and none of Macbeth’s crowd-pleasing bloodletting. Instead it’s a tonally bizarre adventure story that turns focus abruptly in the second half of the play, stitched together by some haphazard adventure. It is frankly, a mess of a play.
This mess is reflected in the pre-show, and the seeds of many of the flaws in both the play and production are sowed here. For fifteen minutes, the chorus of the show ‘entertains’ the audience by obliterating the fourth wall and engaging in bawdy antics. What becomes the band half-heartedly plays a few songs and dance a bit on the stage, while pirate wenches bend over and aimlessly walk around the playing space. Eventually some raincoat-clad pirates come out to encourage us to engage with the wenches. It bears little resemblance, tonally or otherwise, to the play that follows, and only serves to alienate an audience before they’ve had the chance to engage with the actual show they came to see. It is poorly directed; I have no idea what the pre-show is meant to achieve, and if it is meant to achieve anything, the cast appear to have little guidance towards it. Most of the chorus seem to be waiting for the show to start, and their attempts at engaging with the audience are more like being accosted by somebody on the street for money; it’s unwelcome, it’s awkward, and you feel more than a little sorry for them. One cast member tried to talk in veiled jokes about a show that I had just put on and was only met with bemusement and forced laughs from myself and my companions. The rest of the audience seemed similarly unmoved.
I wish I could say things improve when the show starts, but they really don’t. The cast, for the most part, do their darndest, but it seems like director Geoff Allen has seen a few of Ben Henson’s Shakespeare productions and tried to do his own riff on that. However, where Henson starts with a core concept and style and finds incredible moments and nuances within that, Allen appears to have gone backwards. What we’re left with is a play that can’t afford to be any more of a scattershot pile of scenes than it already is blow apart with some headache inducing stylistic choices.
When you combine this style with some rather outmoded styles of performance and blocking, you get a production that’s like an old person trying out an iPhone for the first time—they can definitely manage some things, but can’t quite figure out how to make a call or actually turn the thing on.
One of Allen’s stylistic flourishes appears to be defining the members of each city and country with different kinds of costumes, which is a valid way of doing things, as well as with accents, which is perhaps not. Even having read the play, I could hardly tell you what character belonged to which country, and the costumes, though individually quite impressive, looked more like they were raided from a FirstScene clear-out than carefully curated for the 24-person cast. Everything from Victorian-era brothellers, to raincoat wearing ‘pirates’, to vaguely European royalty, to Pagan priestesses, to the expected Greek style of clothing is covered here, and although theoretically impressive, it makes the play less of a rich tapestry and more of a patchwork. The best individual costume belongs to Thaliard, whose tight military blacks and stark makeup appears to have come straight out of the Resident Evil series. It makes no sense in this setting or in this play, but it definitely drew my eyes.
The costumes are occasionally impressive. The accents are not. Again, all credit to the cast, some of whom have to manage more than one accent throughout and many of whom actually do a bang-on job of nailing the accent they’ve been asked to attempt, but I can’t even fathom why they’ve been asked to do so. Not only do all the separate accents create a quite jarring experience to listen to, it also leads to the play being far more confusing than it needs to be. There’s a scene about a third of the way through where I’m hearing a vaguely British accent, a vaguely Italian accent, whatever accent Thaliard is meant to have (my guess is somewhere north of France, east of England) and some pretty standard New Zealand accents peppered throughout, and it almost destroys what is easily the best scene in the play.
It’s not that either of these stylistic choices are wrong, necessarily; it’s that they’re not supported by the rest of the play. Given that this is a Summer Shakespeare production, the set is understandably static. We are presented with half of a wrecked ship with a horseshoe of empty grass around it as a playing space. It’s pretty enough, but it doesn’t allow for much definition of where we are in time or space through the play, and I can’t help but feel like more could have been done to define where Pericles is at any given moment. Another aspect, which could have been used to define this, is the lighting. While understandably minimal given that a good half of the play is in what could generously be described as broad sunset, again I can’t help but see a missed opportunity in using it to help define something so basic as where the play actually is.
Other stylistic choices are less choices and more flourishes; things that appear to have been thought of and implemented, but not thought through; things that are half-heartedly committed to. These include some fairly on-the-nose song choices, from ‘Thrift Shop’ to a Queen song (and a Queen song is never welcome in any show, to be honest) to an anonymous ballad sung by a few cast members at what should be the play’s big moment, but instead resembles the third act turning point of a CW show. These flourishes also include the waving about of fabric by the chorus to give the illusion of a raging wind and ocean. A few more members of the chorus and this could be a stirring, if not unique, image, but the way it is now is a little laughable, and I feel sorry for the chorus having to wave fabric about on heavy-looking sticks for what feels like an eternity.
This style, and the direction on the whole, does this large cast no favours. The large chorus, though likely a necessity given the size of the play, is dire. Their energy is scattershot and it feels like a group of individual actors, not a unified ensemble, and certainly not a strong chorus. I chalk this up to lack of direction more than the abilities of the individual actors, many of whom I’ve seen impress in other productions, because they seem to have been blocked rather than directed.
This flaw carries on to the rest of the cast, who appear coerced into patterns of movements that barely look natural and do no favours to the play or the story that it is telling. As the titular Pericles, Albert Walker is occasionally stirring, but the depths within this part haven’t been plumbed, and his character arc is stunted by the play itself. Caleb Wells as Gower, the narrator, is as charismatic as the character needs to be, and is one of the few cast members to make the dialogue sound not only natural and appealing, but theatrical. In smaller roles, both Gina Timberlake and Kathryn Owens, are very close to being great. Timberlake goes big to find truths and comedy even bigger, and Owens is genuinely affecting and manages to anchor the second half in an actual story arc.
In the end, this is a play that I did not enjoy. Although the play itself is not great, the flaws are exacerbated by some misguided directorial choices and stylistic flourishes that do not illuminate, accentuate, or expose, but muddy the waters. It has one great scene to its name—an incredibly well-choreographed fight scene, one that gripped applause from an unfeeling audience—and it might be worth the price of admission for that fight alone. But unless you’re dying to see any version of Pericles you can get, and power to you, I’d avoid this one.