Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Written by William Shakespeare
Conceived by Mark Wing-Davey with Jim Calder
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Main Season · Thrust Stage
April 12–May 26, 2013
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Action, adventure, emotion and awe…Expect that and more when Mark Wing-Davey brings a nimble take on Shakespeare to Berkeley Rep. The Obie Award-winning director served up such diverse works as Mad Forest, The Beaux’ Stratagem and 36 Views. Now he delivers a riveting look at Pericles, Prince of Tyre. A virtuous man clings to the mast of a storm-tossed ship as his family reels from palace to brothel to a sacred Greek temple. Knights and pirates, villains and kings…Discover the excitement of Shakespeare all over again in Pericles. We promise: despite the tides of fate, the good guys are “led on by heaven and crown’d with joy at last.”
Mark Wing-Davey · Director
Marc Gwinn · Composer / Music Director
Peter Ksander · Scenic Design
Douglas Stein · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Bradley King · Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Jim Calder · Movement Consultant
Dave Maier · Fight Director
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Calleri Casting · Casting
Lynda Bachman · Assistant Director
Andreea Mincic · Assistant Scenic Designer
James Patrick Nelson
“It’s a picaresque romp full of multiethnic humor, close calls and sentimentality, with a veritable deus ex machina—the old hoist carrying a goddess—and one of the most joyous, bounciest sex scenes ever staged…Inventive director Mark Wing-Davey throws so many ideas at the old play—in performance styles, musical interventions, pop culture references, actors wearing paper plates for masks—that at times it seems like a cartoon or even a lampoon. But when all the trials and tribulations get resolved in the long-expected happy ending, don’t be surprised if you feel tears well up in your eyes…They succeed in showing why Pericles was the biggest hit of 1608 and has regained so much popularity in recent decades…It works…The cast brings it to life, headed by Anita Carey…and David Barlow as an engagingly noble, kind and dangerously innocent Pericles…Jessica Kitchens is a radiant delight as a blithely evil queen, with a drunk scene out of 1940s Hollywood, and Pericles’ girlishly earthy true love Thaïsa. James Carpenter shines—literally, in a Gustav Klimt-like reflective robe—as one evil king and again as Thaïsa’s hearty royal father. Annapurna Sriram is a feisty, earnest Marina and the long-lost daughter, and is captivating in other roles…A shape-shifting Rami Margron, sharp Evan Zes and James Patrick Nelson fill out a wild variety of parts—including a pirate crew, brothel and tournament full of knights—aided by the extra heads and eclecticism of Meg Neville’s imaginative costumes.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Insanely inventive…A rough and tumble theatrical playground where anything goes. Starting with an interactive sing-along and chockablock with pop culture references from Batman to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this is a wild and woolly Bard mashup…Certainly, Wing-Davey—the Obie-winning director (36 Views, Angels in America)—lives up to his reputation for being insanely inventive…He’s overstuffed the epic with cheeky allusions and bravura bits of stagecraft…Make no mistake, there are many lovely moments…When Pericles changes his baby’s diaper and hands her over to another’s care or when Dionyza (Jessica Kitchens), ruler of Tarsus, bemoans the starvation of her people, the intimacy of the piece hits home. Suddenly it’s clear that Pericles’ fantastical journey is a metaphor for all of our lives, the way we each brave the elements of loss, aging and death.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“Captivating…This production has some dazzle and some heft and definitely some humor…The actors hurtle through the various episodes with verve. They bring a zesty humor to the proceedings, which range from the truly lovely…to the ribald…to the just plain goofy.”—Theater Dogs
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Mark Wing-Davey loves to make fantastical mischief. A visionary by nature, he believes that the purpose of art is simply to blow your mind, just after he’s shattered his own. He seeks to penetrate the surface of things, exploring ideas that stretch the boundaries of our knowledge about the world. Whether he’s studying the latest developments in neuroscience or current trends in hip-hop or the shifting geo-political climate, Mark always pushes himself to gain a deeper understanding of how things work and how he might apply that understanding to the theatre. To watch him in rehearsal is to watch a man conducting a wild experiment using every tool available to his imagination. The room becomes a laboratory where director, designers, musicians and performers gather to investigate stories that speak directly to our experience, our history and our consciousness.
Timid he’s not. In approaching Shakespeare, he boldly re-contextualizes the narrative so that the heart of the piece can resonate with a contemporary audience. He loves to create parallels and analogies of every sort, using images and language of great variety to reveal the connections between the modern world and Elizabethan England, between the inner workings of Shakespeare’s mind and our own inner lives. His “anachronisms” can be jarring to some, but they are intentional, never random or flippant. They are there to spark a dialogue with the play in a more deep and memorable way than that offered by a traditional production.
Mark has been mulling over Pericles for years (he first worked on it in Florence some time ago) and is drawing on his most trusted team of designers to viscerally re-imagine the story. Doug Stein and Peter Ksander are back working on sets with us, as well as Bradley King and our longtime colleagues Meg Neville and Jake Rodriguez. The wonderful Anita Carey makes her Berkeley Rep debut, leading an ensemble that has been assembled specifically to present this work in what I’m certain will be a fresh way and startling way. It’s great to welcome them all to Berkeley, a city that has a long history of being a safe home for those seeking to blow their own minds.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
I have the feeling that humans are hardwired to live in constant conflict between what we want and what we cannot have. We want constancy yet we live in a fluid world. We strive for order yet the world is chaotic. We want assurance and yet we coexist with the unexpected. Until I had a child I believed that to be human was to be endlessly curious. But after being asked to read Are You My Mother? for the umpteenth time, I had to recognize that my son’s desire for the familiar retelling of the same story was not a reflection of his lack of imagination but a deeply human need for pattern recognition, affirmation of anticipated actions and the comfort of knowing how the story will end.
As Berkeley Rep audiences know, when you walk through the doors on Addison Street, we do everything we can to upend all that! Among our goals is the pleasure of surprise, of unsettling one’s balance, of creating ambiguity and confounding expectations. We do that with our choice of plays. And we reinforce that impulse in small, more subtle ways. We frequently discuss, in staff meetings, how much information to give to you, our audience, prior to your arrival. At issue in these discussions is not transparency. We’ve come to realize that, not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between the amount of context we provide for you and the quality of your experience. The issue of how much information is, rather, a matter of how much we share before we’ve lost the ability to surprise you. How “safe” should we make your experience?
We have been asked to provide all sorts of warnings, including smoking, drug use, references to death and uses of foul language. The list is actually quite extensive. And as you’ve observed, Berkeley Rep has steadfastly remained almost entirely a warning-free theatre. Except as it pertains to health risks, we resist the impulse to warn you of the myriad threats to your psychic well-being in this theatre. We do, for the squeamish, retain an up-to-date accounting of every risk we can imagine. The more cautious in our audience are always welcome to call our box office to find out exactly how many times the F-bomb is dropped in any given production, or whether anyone disrobes, or dies.
But for the hard-core, we take great pride in being a place where surprises happen. We revel in our ability to throw you occasionally off balance. This is one of the joys of live theatre—that we can startle and perplex and confound. So when the lights come down, we’ll be right there with you, leaning in and wondering what unexpected delights director Mark Wing-Davey has in store.
An event in the room
Mark Wing-Davey on his artistic process
Over the years, Mark Wing-Davey’s observations about how humans process the world and what we desire when we hear a story have impacted the methods he uses as a director. With any artistic project he presents, he asks us to re-examine basic assumptions about the nature of theatre. In the following excerpts from an essay on his greater artistic vision, Wing-Davey articulates what it means to be truly present during a dramatic event.
Theatre is an event in a room. A unique event shared by actors and onlookers inhabiting the envelope, breathing the same air. Of course it’s not a single event, but a multitude of events from the neuronal to the cataclysmic. A performance of a play consists of innumerable events—from a plot turn, a scene shift, a sound cue, to a look, a thought. The conundrum for the creative team is to preserve the essence of surprise, the “eventness of the event,” while crafting a disciplined piece. The thrill for the actor and, more importantly, for the audience exists in that dialectic between the organizing sensibilities behind the piece and its apparent spontaneity. Whether it intends to or not, theatre plays with our desire for story, the experience of which tells us what it is like to be human.
Two observations about humans which are ingredients in the struggle for “eventness”: A) We value those who predict. B) We wish to complete. Incidentally many of these observations are true for a wide range of animals including humans, rather than being exclusively a human trait.
Prediction, “knowing the future,” covers a wide range: economic forecasters, weather forecasters, trend forecasters, augurers, palm readers, astrologers, readers of tea leaves. They all have a common factor: that the possessor of the expertise—real or perceived—is given status by the auditor. Mostly we want to know more than we want to judge the knowing. Certainly we are prepared to pay for what ought to be true, even if it’s not, which was memorably characterized by Stephen Colbert as “truthiness.” Few don’t cast an eye over their horoscope if they glimpse it in a waiting-room magazine. Few rationalists don’t know their star sign.
Completion: It turns out, and this is an enormous subject, that we are all subconscious completists: we finish stories, we finish partial images. As we see, as we hear, as we remember—we are constructing vision, meaning, memory, in the moment. It’s an event.
As the show gets on its feet in the rehearsal room, I continually encourage the “front foot” choice as opposed to the “back foot” choice—a metaphor drawn from cricket, as it happens. The “front foot” choice is to be engaged, surprised, frightened, amused, hungry, devastated, etc.—to be fully “present” in the scene. The “back foot” choice is to be cynical, detached, sated, bored, knowing the future of the scene. Often the “feeling” of the front-foot choice can be simply evoked by literally getting the actors to shift their balance when standing more onto their toes than their heels, the subsequent engaged behavior follows the physiology. This dovetails into preserving the “eventness of the event” in practical terms. Thus while, as I’ve said, we value knowing the future, an actor/character cannot gain spurious status in a scene by making a character choose to know how it turns out, how someone else will behave, how someone will reply. The actor has, after all, read the scene, the play.
There may well be occasions where a “back foot” choice can ultimately be made, but I ask that the first base choice be “front foot.” I ask for actors to delay the “event,” to be “innocent of the future,” to preserve the sense of a “fork in the road.” This is where we begin with one intention or a hardly defined intention, and in the course of articulating it we discover a different direction that the thought, the sentence takes. The audience’s desire to complete our thought, our sentence, is surprised by the turn taken. This way of thinking has numerous applications—particularly in classical text—where the resolution of meaning can be driven towards, yet left to resolve late in the phrase. A practical example is Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” This is an antithesis. I will encourage the actor not to balance the antithesis with his or her inflection, but to “delay the event,” make the fork in the road, the reveal, after the word gutter. It’s as if the turn of thought which makes the epigram occurs then. It is as if it were punctuated “We are all in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.” If the end is predicted by the pattern of the beginning then the speaker seems smug; there is no room for the audience to be surprised because they have not been given permission by the speaker. We know that humor is surprise-based, as in fact is attention in general, I would argue. I hold the same dictum for the rhyming couplet, unless closure is the prime object of the rhyme itself.
As a director I’m interested in the present. The works I make are made in their present: the Now of Then, as it were. T.S. Eliot regarded history as a slice through a lava flow. The battle of Agincourt in 1415 was not the same to a contemporary audience as it was to an audience in 1599, or to an audience in 2003. I’m not interested in Shakespeare as an historical artifact, in the viewer attempting to look through the wrong end of a telescope at the play with its coats of yellowing varnish. It is in any case impossible to escape the present—one only has to look at any film set in the past to be able to guess its production date within 10 years or so, so strong are the unacknowledged signifiers that abound. Though I never feel compelled to set a play in the modern day, I am passionately curious about its socio-historical context. If that work exists in our present, the prism through which I look at it is: how might it have resonated in its own social context, and can that inform our production?
In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, my Central Park production of Henry V was a critique of fake history, manipulated history and unreliable narration in wartime, whilst simultaneously being the personal drama of a tightly wound man, an apparent superhero, who only discovers his ability to really speak to other men when, on the eve of Agincourt, he becomes unwound, acknowledges his own frailty, his darker fear.
In a larger frame, one of the most instructive and freeing sections of Shakespeare is an often-cut section from the fifth prologue in the same play:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.
Thus the Chorus, speaking to us the audience, is encouraging us to imagine an event in the past—Henry’s triumphant return and arrival in Blackheath—uses an event in the contemporary audience’s imagined future: the return of Essex from Ireland (his much-lauded departure for that campaign had happened that spring, still fresh in the collective memory). This is a stunningly modern device from 1599. It’s as if he’s saying “Imagine Henry’s triumphant return. You can’t? Well, imagine the Yankees winning the World Series next year, yes as I’m quite sure they’re going to. How happy are you gonna feel then? Thousands are gonna rush out to Broadway for the victory parade to see the team bring the pennant back to New York City. How deliriously happy are you gonna be? Well, in 1415 tens of thousands rushed out, were much happier—and with even greater reason—than you are gonna be in 2013–14.” Note that the chorus doesn’t stir the audience’s mirror neurons by looking back at a recent thrilling event—say the 2009 World Series victory—he encourages an even more “front foot” choice: he yearns, they yearn, then comes the “fork in the road”—the release. Still now when I unpack the conceptual baggage this passage contains it gives me real goose bumps: the active thrill of anticipating a yearned-for future to evoke the thrill of the past.
The alchemy of imagination
A conversation with director Mark Wing-Davey
By Julie McCormick
Mark Wing-Davey is known for his fertile imagination and the vital spirit he brings to new work and eclectic adaptations of classic plays. His approach sets him apart from other directors; he allows experimentation and collaboration in the rehearsal room to guide the vision of a final production.
Originally hailing from Great Britain, Wing-Davey has taken his productions all over the world and now resides in New York as the chair of Graduate Acting at Tisch School of the Arts. He has been a frequent and beloved collaborator at Berkeley Rep, with productions of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, an adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem, The Life of Galileo and Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views. In the busy months prior to rehearsal, when the world of Pericles, Prince of Tyre was just beginning to take shape, Wing-Davey had a conversation with Berkeley Rep about his distinct creative process and the unique pleasures of bringing Shakespeare’s words to life.
Julie McCormick: What kind of world is Pericles going to be taking place in?
Mark Wing-Davey: Well, I think it will take place in an odd mix of the industrial and the gorgeous. I’m interested in recontextualizing, and I suppose that’s a kind of hallmark of the shows I do, with lesser and greater degrees of success.
Partly one of the things that I’m interested in theatrically is…I use the phrase, “the thingness of the thing.” It’s a phrase that grew out of my relationship with Doug Stein [one of the set designers for Pericles], whom I’ve had a long relationship with, and it’s partly about some kind of physical essence of something.
One of the reasons why it’s always interesting, for instance, to see someone have their hair cut onstage, or make an omelette or something, is that it very much is happening onstage while you’re watching it. It’s not fakery. On the other hand, there’s a kind of tension between theatrical illusion and the way the imagination works, and it seems to me that what Pericles as a production will have is that odd combination of sudden bursts of realism mixed with a rather larger kind of storytelling idea.
So it’s about finding the right balance between both magic and realism.
Sure. It seems to me that one of the things that is fun for an audience is to kind of be fooled by how something is done, and then to see how it’s done, but at the same time, to have been stimulated imaginatively. And trying to get the alchemy of that right is exciting, it’s a challenge.
Most recently I did a piece in Brooklyn that I’d done for the fourth time, Passion Play, Sarah Ruhl’s piece. It was a pretty low-budget production, but I was able to have the artisans building the show sit in on rehearsals, which were happening in the same place that the performances were going to take place. A lot of people thought that in terms of the work we produced, it was probably more successful than the rather more expensive productions that had preceded it. Part of that was because the flights of fantasy and the kind of poor theatre that had happened in the rehearsals were able to be translated fairly quickly and easily into the performances. That was one of the things that I mentioned to Tony Taccone about working on this particular production. One of the great things about Berkeley Rep, as it were, is not only that they’re very welcoming, but it so happens that the shops are right by the rehearsal space. What we’re doing in the design is creating a kind of structure where we still have some freedom within the room for things to be discovered and ways of doing things to be worked out by the particular actors who are in this group.
For instance, I’m thinking that the band—there will probably be two or three musicians onstage—and the score will be through-composed. So in other words, there will be a sense of this being a combination of a theatre piece and a music piece, and nearly all the actors will be able to play instruments. It’s hard for me to describe, because to a certain extent, what I tend to do with this kind of work is assemble the ingredients without knowing right from the outset what the piece is going to be like.
On sort of a different note, what is attractive to you about Pericles? Why this particular Shakespeare?
Well, partly what was attractive to me was that I worked on a version of it in Italy with Jim Calder [the artistic director of Continuum Company and head of movement in Graduate Acting at Tisch], who is going to come out and do some work on this, and I was surprised at how I kind of responded to the…I guess the picaresque story of the man who goes through these trials and tribulations, and then how confidently Shakespeare deals with these quite melodramatic moments within the piece. I found it sort of charming as a director, and I quite liked the sort of paganism of it all. And also, I very much enjoyed the fact that we were doing this with very few actors. This will be a full production, but I don’t think it will be full-blown, if I can make that distinction. It feels like this is a kind of jewel of a piece. It isn’t one of Shakespeare’s great plays, I don’t think, but at the same time, it was one of his more popular plays. I think part of it is because it has that kind of episodic line to it. I like the challenge of following Pericles on the longer arc of his journey but at the same time having this sort of comic-book feel, almost, to the episodes. And the other thing, frankly, is that I found a way of doing Gower, the narrator, with Anita Carey—who’s going to play it here—when I was in Florence, and that was also a hook into it that I thought was interesting. Anita Carey is a British actress from the North of England, who happens to be my partner in life. But she also is from the North of England. Gower’s stuff is written in a different meter to the rest of the play, and so what will happen is that Gower, the storyteller, will be from the North of England. So I found the idea of this old-fashioned way of expressing things leading into this story as a device to be quite thrilling.
I understand that this is not the full text of Pericles that is going to be performed.
No, it’s a quite savagely cut text of Pericles. Partly in order to make it work for a smaller cast, but partly to celebrate the fun of transformation and the skill of the actor. For instance, one of the characters, Cleon, is completely cut, and the queen then becomes a marvelous role. So it’s been conflated in many respects.
As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s some debate over whether or not this is all his text. Did that guide your red pen at all?
Not particularly, no. I made the cuts that I thought would work. It doesn’t matter to me whoever might have done the other stuff. With quite a few of Shakespeare’s plays there’s that sense of other people having a hand in it…people were less possessive about the text in Shakespeare’s time. So no, I don’t feel like I’m chopping out this stuff because it wasn’t quite as good: I was mostly driven by story. And also, to a certain sense, intelligibility. I want people to understand it, and to understand what people are saying. So that was all. I didn’t feel that I was cutting stuff that was non-Shakespearean. I don’t feel like Shakespeare is sacrosanct as such. When I did Troilus, I got someone in to rewrite some of the jokes. Because I feel like it needs to exist in the present, in some sense. If the joke can be rewritten in some way that doesn’t strike you immediately as being overly modern and so the humor strikes you first, then maybe you haven’t noticed that it has kept Shakespeare’s form, but actually the little nuts and bolts of it have shifted. So I feel the same about Pericles. Not that I want it to be rewritten, but I certainly feel in terms of cutting it and making an event out of it…it needs to be an event that exists in 2013. We’re not going to be looking through a telescope. That would be the wrong way round.
Earlier you were talking about how the design creates a structure that still allows for play and discovery during rehearsals. It sounds like you go in with a lot of pieces which only are completely assembled once everyone’s in the rehearsal room. Can you talk a little bit more about how that works?
Yeah. Well with this piece, there’ll be the kind of technical stuff that one will go through, like scansion, the everyday stuff you might be doing with any Shakespeare production. But because it’s going to be a little company of actors, then I’ll be exploring their own specific skills. You know, if there are instruments they can play, if they can dance—that might then be woven into the rehearsal period. What one does is try to offer up something which is almost complete, so that the audience moment by moment begins to complete narratives or complete images or complete scenarios themselves. So that, if you like, is what keeps them on the edges of their seats and engaged in what’s going on.
In the work itself, you try to encourage the actors to explore the combination of the emotional life of the characters or personages, but at the same time, not to immediately leap into the received performance, which is really a copy of another performance. So the struggle is how to help the actors make those individual characterizations accurate to life, but not to feel like this is simply some convention they’re following. Those are some of the struggles you have in rehearsal.
It’s simply an odd mix. You have a physical set of objects. And what you’re doing is asking, “Wouldn’t it be good if you have great big plank here and a little tiny wooden block and we could unbalance that plank? What could we make out of that?” So part of the work in rehearsal is trying hundreds of ideas and discarding the majority of them, eventually having something which has a coherent narrative, a coherent aesthetic, and is still kind of surprising minute by minute.
In your teaching work you are interested in bringing elements of biopsychology into the classroom, and even collaborating with neuroscientists. Can you talk a little about neuroscience’s relationship with theatre?
I am very interested in neuroscience and with its potential practical applications in rehearsal. There’s still a long way to go.
Just before I came out to rehearse this show, I did an event at NYU for the Emotional Brain Institute, with a neuroscientist and two actors, talking about the generation and repetition of emotions in the actor, how similar emotions may be generated in an audience and how investigations into the emotional brain may throw light on these processes. For me at this stage, the bio-psychological stuff is simply expanding the language, the narrative we might use for understanding human behavior—thus we might say to an actor: “Don’t worry about having to work at generating feeling. Try sometimes beginning with the physiology of it—your brain, your emotions may well catch up.” One wants to give comfort or encourage in what is a more fact-based way.
There are practical neuro-psychological techniques that I tend to avoid—the bogus task, for instance, where you trick actors by giving them something to do which seems the object of the enquiry, but in reality the purpose is different. Being an actor, I have a lot of respect for them as artisans, let alone artists; I don’t like to trick them into stuff. That said, I might sometimes occupy an actor’s short-term working memory with a mundane activity (say, remembering a phone number) if I’m after a more “instinctive” emotional release in a scene. Of course there are many things acting teachers, directors have done in the past, which might have a scientific rationale behind them, but which they discovered or practiced well before the scientific explanation came along. There are many things that Stanislavski, for instance, came upon, particularly in his later Theory of External Actions, which current neuro-biological thinking goes some way to support.
How does this play out for you in rehearsals?
For me, I go right away back to the idea of completion. That’s why, with an actor, I might well say, “Look, that’s great—you’ve wept and cried and raged all over the place in the rehearsal. Maybe now it might be worth experimenting with pulling it back. So that you don’t entirely do all the work for the audience. The audience will do some work for you.” Really what I’m ultimately interested in is the experience of the audience. That acting and plays and stuff are really for them, so that this production is made to be seen. And to satisfy their desires for completion and what they think they’re going to get in the theatre and what they don’t have. So those things you play with all the time. You play with convention and expectation and that stuff and hopefully end up with something that is quite exhilarating.
Re-envisioning Shakespeare: Pericles and a tradition of change
By Nora Sørena Casey
He has captured our imaginations with a murdered king, a fairy queen, an exit pursued by a bear. He has whisked us to storm-tossed islands and the battle of Agincourt; we have transported him to stages across the globe and the centuries. The works of William Shakespeare transcend these barriers in time, place and society; at their core they seem to belong to everyone. In his language, imagery and feeling, there’s no substitute for Shakespeare, and artists rarely try to find one. What they seek, instead, is to create in each performance the vibrancy and awe that marked these plays since they first took Queen Elizabeth’s breath away.
When confronted with a leather-bound Complete Works of Shakespeare, it can be easy to entertain an idea of these plays as signed, sealed and delivered. Many of us are first introduced to Shakespeare in an English classroom where plays are presented as static text to be analyzed with reverence. We may watch productions of this classical literature in respectful silence, but Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t. When his plays were first performed, theatre was not considered a “serious” art; the groundlings (poor audience members who stood during performances) were known to heckle and cheer, while eating and drinking, and actors could respond in kind. Many performances included improvisation, especially on the part of the fools or clowns, who might replace a written joke with something specific to the moment. There’s a strong tradition of marrying an appreciation of Shakespeare with irreverence, and when, for example, director Mark Wing-Davey had some of the jokes rewritten for his 1995 production of Troilus and Cressida, he was following in the footsteps of the original Shakespearean actors.
From their inception, Shakespeare’s plays have brought audiences into a dialogue with the political and social issues of their time. The Bard drew on his society to fuel the fires of art, and today’s artists are responsible for igniting similar reactions in people who have a very different set of references and cultural norms. Re-envisioning Shakespeare is necessary for contemporary directors—they must reframe elements of each play so that it continues to speak to modern audiences. For example, portraits of the Jewish character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice transformed along with attitudes towards Judaism: Shylock was originally a comic role, a villain in the mid-18th century, and only in the 19th century became a sympathetic figure. For audiences to continue to respond to The Merchant of Venice, the play’s world had to change alongside their own. While shifts in political sentiments can provide directors with clear interpretative choices, even straightforward locations, events or objects may benefit from re-contextualization. As it’s no longer believed that pelicans eat their parents’ blood, Lear’s insulting term “pelican daughters” requires a new approach. To us, a severed head is an image out of fantasy or horror stories; it elicited a different response from audiences in the 1600s who saw real ones daily on London Bridge. When moments like these lose their original impact, directors face a void that can either suck away dramatic momentum or be transformed by a new creation.
In addition to the malleability that lies in the interpretive space between script and stage, there is also ambiguity in Shakespeare’s texts born out of the conditions of publishing in Elizabethan England. The earliest printing of Shakespeare’s plays, the Quartos, were often printed based on the transcriptions of audience members or from the memory of actors. The absence of standardized spelling meant that publishers might lose the meaning of a playwright’s word, inspiring generations of debate. For instance, the actual text of one of Hamlet’s famous lines is, “Oh, that this too sallied flesh would melt.” While most editors have interpreted “sallied” as “solid,” some opt for “sullied,” and the fact is that Shakespeare didn’t write either.
The mystery surrounding the original text is especially strong with Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Originally published in 1609, the play appeared for the first time in the Third Folio in 1663 and its authorship remains a contentious topic (among scholars). Theories abound: it is all by Shakespeare; none by Shakespeare; Shakespeare edited someone else’s early script; he edited his own early script…The most common belief is that Shakespeare is responsible for the last three acts of the play and that the first two acts are primarily the work of another writer, most likely George Wilkins, a dramatist, innkeeper and petty criminal associated with Shakespeare’s group the King’s Men.
But while we may never know exactly how much of it is his, Pericles’ place within his canon affirms Shakespeare’s complexity as a storyteller. The play was incredibly popular in his day, but modern audiences are often put off by Pericles’ picaresque plot. Rather than an in-depth character study, the play embraces a myriad of fantastical people, places and events, reflecting the source material by medieval poet John Gower, Confessio Amantis. Gower becomes the narrator guiding us through Pericles, and the play he shares with us—full of fairytale coincidences and disasters—has the structure of a medieval romance. The language of the play also evokes this narrative tradition: Gower’s speech shifts into an older poetic style, instead of Shakespeare’s usual naturalistic rhythm. The fabric of Pericles weaves together past and present, while the whirlwind of locations and characters keeps the play’s tone from ever settling. Scholars have looked at the prominence of couplets (less favored by Shakespeare), imagery (characters are reminiscent of The Tempest’s Prospero and The Winter’s Tale’s Perdita) and meter to try to isolate Shakespeare’s voice in Pericles, but a consensus cannot be reached. Perhaps for the very reason that made Shakespeare the literary titan he is: he seems capable of anything.
Pericles reminds us that when it comes to Shakespeare, nothing is set in stone. That’s certainly the philosophy Mark Wing-Davey had when he approached the play and began trimming scenes, fusing characters, adding music and thinking about what choices in setting, scenery and costumes would make this production resonate with his audience. In doing so, he was aligned with the core of Shakespearean tradition: storytelling. As they always have, Shakespeare’s enduring characters, themes and language shine through the imaginative framework created by the editors, publishers, directors, designers and actors who turned his words into a performance. These age-old stories of love and hate, empires and families strike a universal chord, but in bringing them to the stage they also become a unique event of our own time. Each production should evoke a feeling best described by, well, Shakespeare. “O wonder,” says Miranda in The Tempest, “O brave new world that has such people in it.” And her father replies, “‘Tis new to thee.” In the end, each production of Shakespeare is timeless and created anew.
See what critics say about Mark Wing-Davey’s visionary new production.