Photo: David Hou
STRATFORD, Ont. — There’s a moment in the Stratford Festival’s new production of Shakespeare’s seldom-performed Pericles when actress Deborah Hay blows out the candles on a cake.
It’s a simple moment, but Hay — in the role of Thaisa, the young woman who becomes the title character’s doomed bride — gives it a softly luminous rapture that speaks volumes.
There’s a later moment when Hay reappears as a young maiden named Marina. Shakespeare’s melodramatic plot has placed her in a brothel where she is in imminent danger of losing her virtue if her keepers have their way. The latter include a gravel-voiced Randy Hughson revelling in his character’s scrofulous awfulness, Brigit Wilson as a flame-wigged madam named Bawd and the always dependable Keith Dinicol as a fastidious fop named Pander. The scene becomes a comic set piece as we watch Hay’s cunning Marina adroitly and amusingly preserve her maidenhood from the increasingly frustrated machinations of this scheming trio.
This delectable actress, back at Stratford after a season at the Shaw Festival where she delivered a dynamite performance in Cabaret, is one of the best things about Pericles — or rather The Adventures Of Pericles, which is the name that Stratford officials have chosen to bestow on their current treatment of Shakespeare’s problematic play.
But the fact that director Scott Wentworth has chosen to assign two key roles to this one actress is an indication of his readiness to plunge into bold and potentially troublesome new waters in his approach to the material. You see, Marina is the long-lost daughter of Pericles and Thaisa, the character Hay also portrays. Her mother has died in childbirth, her body sealed in a waterproof chest — a chest that will float ashore at Ephesus where its contents will be miraculously restored to life. Shakespeare loved scenes of reconciliation and recognition and reunion — and with this fairy-tale romance he predictably delivered the goods in the play’s final moments. Wentworth orchestrates these moments gracefully but they remain somewhat diminished in impact because of the problem he has created for himself with the double casting of one actress in two key roles. Indeed, he has painted himself into a difficult corner because the end of the play demands that mother and daughter confront each other. This necessitates having someone else play Thaisa at an crucial emotional moment. It doesn’t really work.
This is certainly not the first production of Pericles to assign these two roles to a single actress, but Shakespearean critic J.C. Trewin was succinct more than 30 years ago in explaining why it was a bad idea. “Marina should not be doubled with Thaisa as some directors attempt,” he wrote, “for we lose the effect of the key moment of reunion.” It’s as simple as that.
Indeed, there was confusion among some audience members following Saturday night’s premiere — who was Deborah Hay supposed to be? — and this suggests some failure of narrative clarity in this production. I mention this fact only because I was button-holed afterwards by theatre-goers trying to sort things out.
Pericles is a bit of a mess structurally: there’s good reason to believe that the first two acts were written by someone else, and Shakespeare’s own contemporary, Ben Jonson, dismissed it as a “mouldy tale.” But the presence in the text of the larger-than-life chorus figure, Gower, can ensure a more secure narrative line — a factor that contributed mightily to to the coherence of two previous Stratford productions of this play, both magical outings — one directed by Leon Rubin, the other by Richard Ouzounian.
But Wentworth is taking some interesting gambles with this production. The magic is still present — in the riddle that Pericles must solve at the beginning, an action that has him fleeing for his life through the waters and kingdoms of the Mediterranean; in the interventions of gods and goddesses; in the miracles of survival from shipwreck; in the restoration to life of a dead princess. But Wentworth and designer Patrick Clark have framed it in a spare and severe world so predominant in whites and greys and blacks that the occasional explosions of colour — with the brothel scene, for example — seem like offences against order.
Wentworth has also daringly dispensed with Gower, our traditional chorus figure and guide, our essential fixer when it comes to keeping the play’s episodic structure under control. So we need to keep our wits about us while watching a play whose action takes us to Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene. Indeed, it could be argued that this move places the production at a disadvantage when it comes to clarity. We’re not exactly being cut adrift, but it’s clear that Wentworth wants to us look at the play in a different way, as something more than a fantastic adventure. If we have a mentor and guide, it is now the goddess Diana, portrayed here with quiet authority by Marian Adler as some kind of lynchpin against the consequences of a disordered universe. Let other directors retreat into the sensibility of an Arabian Nights adventure. This production is set more forbiddingly in the 19th Century. Miracles and happy endings can still happen in this world — but they tend to be hard won.
Consequently, Evan Buliung’s fascinating performance as Pericles offers more — or perhaps deliberately less — than your conventional mythic hero.
The tests and hazards that he encounters seem more ominous, his odyssey more emotionally fragmented. It’s an odyssey that begins in Antioch where he places his life in jeopardy over the shocking solution to a riddle posed by the king. His subsequent flight takes him to Pentapolis to a friendship with King Simonides (a bouncy and engaging Wayne Best) and a lively jousting tournament which leads him to marriage with the king’s daughter Thaisa. And that in turn leads to the birth of a child during a storm at sea and a death that turns out not to be a death after all.
Buliung’s Pericles is a haunting and haunted figure, far more so than we normally encounter with this character. He can be a robust adversary with a sword — witness the lively staging of the tournament in Pentapolis — but does he believe in his invincibility? There’s a revealing moment in the joust when he finds himself face to face with the countenance of the pursuer who threatens to become his nemesis. The latter is actor E.B. Smith, a formidable presence in this production with his ongoing variations in villainy.
A responsive ensemble cast must play a variety of roles, and there’s fine work from the likes of Stephen Russell, Sean Arbuckle, David Collins and Antoine Hared. There’s the sense that we’re getting reflections upon reflections here, that we’re being forced to consider the myriad manifestations of human behaviour. The question looms: do metaphysical considerations even have a place in a late Shakespearean romance often accused of being simplistic? Wentworth apparently thinks so, inviting us to yield to its inner mysteries. John Wain once suggested that Pericles reflected “the truth of fable, which expresses things close to the heart of man by means of symbolic action.” Terry Hands, director of a legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production, once talked of the play’s elusive temperament and unpredictable effect on the emotions. “For those who wish it, there is metaphor. For those who wish it, there is fairy tale. Either can be ignored without detriment to the experience, or both accepted.”
Such simple truths emerge strongly in Scott Wentworth’s brave — although at times problematic — reading. Stratford needs to take more risks like this one. On this occasion the pay-off is considerable.
(The Adventures of Pericles continues to Sept.19. Ticket information at 1 800 5671600 or stratfordfestival.ca)