This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Pericles, National Theatre of Greece, dir. Giannis Houvardas, 27 April 2012 at The Globe, London.
By Stephen Purcell, University of Warwick
The Globe auditorium erupted with applause as a member of the National Theatre of Greece’s cast bounded onto the stage and proposed, in English, ‘Let’s play!’
It was a moment which summarised nicely the sense of goodwill, imaginative complicity and indeed ‘play’ that characterised this Pericles. All twelve of the company remained on the bare stage from start to finish, sitting and standing around the periphery until the play demanded their involvement. Sometimes they were required to play specific characters, but just as often they were needed as an ensemble: a pressing throng in Tyre, the starving population of Tarsus, the eddying sea of the shipwreck, a crew of sleeping sailors, or a gaggle of lecherous customers waving banknotes at the brothel in Mytilene. In the moments when they were not directly involved in the play’s action, they watched their fellow actors with a physical intensity that encouraged the Globe audience, their mirrors, to do the same. When Dimitris Piatas’ casual and likeable Gower came downstage to deliver passages of narration, the rest of the cast smiled out at us, as if they were inviting us to share in their evident enjoyment of the tale.
Ensemble-based physical theatre can sometimes be accused of simply showcasing its actors’ virtuoso skills for their own sakes, but this was not a problem here. Giannis Houvardas’ production was slick and economical, telling the story with clarity and pace, rarely indulging in self-indulgent display. Where it did draw attention to itself, it was often informed by a precedent in the text: the play’s three comic fishermen, for example, made frequent asides in English, disrupting the illusion of the Greek-language scene with reference to the here-and-now of its performance in 21st-century England in a way which paralleled the text’s own interplay between Pericles’ heightened poetry and the fishermen’s satirical, vernacular prose. ‘I’m starving – I’m Greek,’ explained one of them (Giorgos Glastras) as he begged the groundlings for food. Upon being presented with a sandwich by an obliging playgoer, he responded: ‘You’re so nice here in England! You should join the Euro.’
Performers slipped between characters at a moment’s notice, twisting their scarves and coats into new configurations to enact an instant costume change: Lydia Fotopoulou’s Bawd became Dionyza by flipping her coat-tails up around her neck, while an anonymous fish (Manolis Mvromatakis) suddenly transformed into Simonides with the addition of a pair of shades and a mimed cigar. This presentational style was complemented by the English surtitles on either side of the stage, which described the basic plot elements of each scene in a manner similar to Brecht’s employment of placards. We were not being asked to empathise, or kept in a state of dramatic tension: we were sharing in a collaborative act of storytelling. Indeed, the company’s repeated use of song and percussion frequently lent the production an almost ritualistic, mythological feel (though this was regularly undercut by its self-reflexive humour).
There was a certain artful naivety to the performance at times. The use of a Greek nursery rhyme (‘specially dedicated to the Globe audience’) to lead into the play’s denouement, for example, felt ever so slightly insincere to me. The company had clearly worked hard to convey a sense of improvisational chaos, but the production was in reality highly polished – the scarf snatched at a moment’s notice to create Thaisa’s pregnancy became a recurring motif, and Simonides’ seemingly irrelevant mimed cigar opened the door to a whole sequence of physical clowning which culminated in him and Pericles (Christos Loulis) holding mimed guns to one another’s foreheads.
The ensemble was able to change gear very quickly and effectively, as was evident in their simple and moving portrayal of Thaisa’s (Maria Skoula) apparent death – though the potential emotional impact of this moment was limited by the deliberately sudden transition into the interval. Stefania Goulioti’s Marina provided a forceful and spirited protagonist for the second half of the play, but again, the production seemed to pull back from allowing its audience an emotional payoff in her reconciliation with her mother. Instead, the play’s final scene became a meta-theatrical epilogue, in which Pericles came face-to-face with each member of the ensemble in turn, each one representing a central ‘player’ in his life story.
A life-affirming song by the entire company rounded the evening off, and the audience were encouraged to clap along – which they did. The production ended as it had begun – with a warm and enthusiastic round of applause. From start to finish, it had been first and foremost an act of communal celebration.
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Click on the image below to watch a video recording of this production online for free at THE SPACE:
Want to know what other audience members thought of the production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:
Listen below to an interview with the assistant director and one of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
Here’s what others thought of the production: