Year of Shakespeare: Pericles and Open Stages

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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, Directed by James Farrell and Jamie Rocha-Allan for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 5 October 2012.

By José A. Pérez Díez

Arguably, the main difference between professional and amateur actors is that the latter expect to gain no economic benefit and work, etymologically, out of their love for the art. Professionals have the advantage of having received formal training and of having the support of a technical crew, while amateurs may double as lighting technicians, set designers, or even interval bartenders and have learned how to do it by doing it. And sometimes by doing it over many decades. Often some amateur shows prove to be more engaging, direct and powerful than professional enterprises of supposed great pitch and moment born at the whim of bad Regietheater (Director’s Theatre).

Early in 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company started the Open Stages festival as a forum to celebrate the diversity and creativity of amateur theatre practitioners all over the United Kingdom, plus some companies from the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and the Republic of Ireland. A total of 268 groups performed full productions or adaptations of plays by Shakespeare under the banner of the RSC and in co-operation with ten regional partner theatres. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre was the Open Stages hub of the Midlands of England and the centre of operations of the whole project. Members of the team led by producer Ian Wainwright attended performances of most of the participant productions and offered a number of free Skills Exchange days in each regional hub, encompassing sessions on voice and text, movement, stage combat, and acting with professional RSC coaches. Some shows were selected to take part in a series of regional showcases in the ten partner theatres. Finally, though the festival was not conceived as a competition, a national showcase was prepared for July 2012, selecting one production from each region to be performed in the RSC theatres in Stratford as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

The groups varied enormously in background and resources, from school and college societies, or youth theatre ensembles, to well-established community companies, and groups in the armed forces. Some of them had frequently performed Shakespeare in the past, but for many Open Stages was their first Shakespearean venture. I was fortunate to witness the process from its start, since I was cast in the title-role of the production of The Life and Death of King John that the dramatic society of which I am a member, the Shakespeare Institute Players, pitched for the festival in March 2011. Under the direction of Robert F. Ball, the cast that included M.A. and Ph.D. students, as well as two of our doctoral graduates (Will Sharpe as the Bastard, and Jami Rogers as Constance), took great pride in having the opportunity to perform on the stages of The Swan and The Courtyard theatres. Having no formal acting training, I thought the coaching sessions with the RSC provided an excellent insight into how professional actors prepare for a role, while the training also proved to be helpful in actual performance.

October 2012 marked the culmination of the festival with the production of Pericles at The Courtyard with the newly formed RSC Amateur Ensemble. They tried to demonstrate that, given the time and technical resources that major professional companies can afford, amateur actors can perform at the same artistic level as their professional colleagues. The auditions for the twenty-nine available parts were fierce, with almost 400 applications received. According to Ian Wainwright’s programme note, the final cast included ‘an IT consultant, two teachers, a waitress, a DJ, a binman, a mobile-phone salesman and a solicitor’, and it looked ‘to celebrate the idea of Shakespeare as the people’s playwright’. The result was worthy of the endeavour and amply proved the point.

The modern-dress production ran for ninety minutes with no interval, using Phil Porter’s cleverly cut text that included all major events of the play, but skipped some sections by using Gower’s summaries enacted as dumb shows. Gower’s lines were distributed among fifteen of the actors, who functioned as a Greek chorus speaking in unison. They were pre-set at the start sitting on stage, watching the audience coming in. The fixed set upstage replicated the hull of a modern ship, painted in a greenish brown and spluttered with blood. A central opening also served as above playing space (Diana’s apparition) and the upstage left ramp was used to wheel tables and sofas onto the thrust stage, making for a dynamic succession of scenes. The cast had to struggle with the difficult acoustics of The Courtyard Theatre, especially hollow with no audience on the upper gallery. Sope Dirisu’s Pericles was undoubtedly the centrepiece of the show, offering a nuanced and moving reading of the part and succeeding in showing the king’s ageing process in a physically impeccable performance. Among other stylised moments, members of the chorus replicated the movement of the sea before Pericles’ shipwreck on the coast of Pentapolis, and carried him above their heads as if he were swimming on the crest of a wave. His wooing of Thaisa (Imogen Hartley) in the presence of her father Simonides (Stephen Bridgen) was accompanied by an outstanding dance sequence. Other striking effects included the transformation of the baby Marina into her adult self, played by Chloe Orrock, who pulled the swaddling clothes out of the arms of Lychorida (Sue Whyte) to use them as a shawl. Among the most memorable scenes, Thaisa’s resurrection stood out due to Peter Malin’s humane and lyric performance as Cerimon. The re-union of Pericles with his wife and daughter was the final emotional note, after which the chorus resumed their initial positions to speak the final lines of a truly beautiful show.

Let us hope that the RSC’s remarkable idea of reaching out to non-professional theatre makers may be the first of other projects that seek to bridge the sometimes arbitrary gap between professionals and amateurs. After all, both should spend time together in the celebration of the love of their craft.

 

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.

 

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Author:José A. Pérez Díez

José A. Pérez Díez is undertaking his doctoral studies at The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, working on the first fully annotated, modern-spelling critical edition of John Fletcher's 'Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid' (visit www.lovescure.wordpress.com). He teaches at the University of Birmingham and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and reviews Renaissance drama in performance for 'Shakespeare Bulletin' and 'Cahiers Élisabethains'.

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