Categories - Theatre Shakespeare
Riding Lights Theatre Company brought something rather special to round off York International Shakespeare Festival 2021; a production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre filmed in front of green screen and using some very clever technology to bring cast members together in a seamless way during Covid times. I’d already had a taste of what this company could do to remove the social distance barriers in their profoundly moving Breaking Day earlier this year, but this film advances the possibilities several leaps forward, and is meticulously produced.
The poet Gower, played by Emily Feltham, takes the form of a beautiful, bohemian storyteller, who still retains that ephemeral other worldliness of the original, but has been brought right up to date with a revised narrative written by Nigel Forde, and who weaves the tale together with wisdom and balance.
The concept of setting a riddle to be solved in exchange for a hand in marriage was explored by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, in which Bassanio won the hand of Portia, the penalty had he not solved it being celibacy. A decade later, in Pericles, King Antiochus (Richard Mapletoft) poses a riddle that hides a more sinister truth, and if it is guessed incorrectly, then the punishment is death. Prince Pericles of Tyre guessing the truth of the matter, that Antiochus is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter, decides that such an awful thing should not be revealed in public, but conveys that he fully understands what is going on. Antiochus gives him time to flee the scene, but not wanting a loose cannon who could divulge the secret at any time roaming free, he sends his servant Thaliard (Sandy Murray) to follow and murder Pericles.
Before Pericles (Simon Rodda) leaves the court of Antiochus, there is a beautifully tender moment with the daughter (Chloe Oldroyd), where Pericles assures her that she is not to blame for the abuse that she has been subjected to; that she is still a ‘fair glass of light’, gently explaining that she is like a viol - an instrument that like a violin or viola was played with a bow and produced very pleasant music, but was so small that it was lain in the lap or put between the knees of the player, and the convex bow was played with the palm upwards – ‘…fingered to make man his lawful music’. It’s a powerful and sickening image of child abuse. Oldroyd is silent throughout this, playing the role of someone who has been damaged by family abuse truthfully well. Words drawn from an old play that still sadly ricochet in a contemporary world where childhood abuse increased exponentially in lockdown, and where historical institutional and individual abuse cases make the headlines on a regular basis. Young people who have been scarred by sexual violence, usually by people they know and should have been able to trust; young people who still need their Pericles' moments – “It’s not your fault”, “You are not to blame”, “You are beautiful, and you deserve better”.
Pericles initially returns to Tyre, but his friend Helicanus (Patricia Jones) counsels him that his home city will be the first place Antiochus’ messenger will look for him, and suggests he spend time travelling further afield. Pericles sets sail to Tarsus, just as Thaliard arrives to kill him. Hearing a public announcement that the prince is away, Thaliard decides to tell Antiochus that Pericles has perished at sea.
Tarsus, a once prosperous city, is now stalked by famine. Its population is weak and so desperate for food that discussions take place between husband and wife as to which one of them should be eaten to prolong the life of the other. In a dialogue between the governor, Cleon (Butshilo Nieya), and his wife Dionyza (Grace Cookey-Gam) that is reminiscent of the Biblical scenes of 2 Kings 6, the sad helplessness of the situation rolls out in waves of heartbreak that seem all too familiar to us. Once again, the words of Shakespeare could have been written in our time. Even this morning, I read of famine of 1984 proportions overtaking Ethiopia again, as a result from the unceasing conflict in Tigray; of acute hunger in Yemen, Sudan and northern Nigeria; of 34 million people worldwide just a step away from starvation; and of these chilling words from David Beasley of the World Food Programme,
“We are seeing a catastrophe unfold before our very eyes. Famine – driven by conflict and fuelled by climate shocks and the COVID-19 hunger pandemic – is knocking on the door for millions of families”.
Starving people are vulnerable people, and when Cleon hears that Pericles’ ships are on their way, he fears that the land will be ceased in a war they are too weak to fight, but Pericles carries compassion and much needed food supplies. “Your grace is welcome to our town and us”, smiles a relieved Cleon.
However, Helicanus sends word that Thaliard has been in pursuit of him, so Pericles sets sail again.
A storm rages, in a poetically gorgeous description that belies its severity,
‘Slowly, the land discandies into mist
And far from any port or friendly shore,
The creaming waters seem at once disturbed;
Great creatures of the deep, the growling whales
And flashing porpoises sling water to stars;
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes,
Which fret and shake the elements below
To a sea of flint, on which a hundred moons
Shatter themselves and fling their shards abroad
As if to shake the carcass of the world
And throw horizons to the humming air.
Now the day-wearied sun is wrapt in clouds
And spits forth lightnings, dreadful thunderbolts
Which roar and clap the ears with horrid din.’
Pericles’ ship is wrecked, and he is thrown, battered and exhausted onto the shores of Pentapolis. Two fishermen (Erin Burbridge and Kelvin Goodspeed) share a humorous banter that, like most good comedy, has more than a modicum of truthful observation at its core; that, in any society, it is the rich that have power, whilst those without money or status are powerless. Pericles, approaches them for help, and amidst their jocularity is a kindness that warms and takes care of him. In their conversation, he learns that Simonides (Paul Burbridge) is to hold a jousting contest, the prize being the hand of his daughter, Thaisa (Nell Baker) in marriage. When the fishermen drag a rusty helmet from the sea that Pericles recognises to be his own, he plonks it on his bedraggled locks, seaweed hanging over his eyes, and knows it to be a sign that he must enter the contest.
Simonades is not put off by outward appearances, and it is, of course, not the knights whose armour shines brightly, but the rusty helmeted Pericles, one no-one recognises to be a Prince, who wins the match. There is some lovingly teasing banter from wonderful Burbridge when the other suitors are sent packing and Simonades gives his blessing to Thaisa and Pericles. He still does not know Pericles’s status, but recognises that what is in the heart is the better marker of commendation.
The marriage takes place, news arrives that both King Antiochus and his daughter are dead, and the couple are free to begin their lives together without fear. After a few months, Thaisa becomes pregnant, and the two begin their journey back to Tyre where he will reign.
A storm comes up, Thaisa goes into labour and amidst the squall gives birth to a premature daughter, but gives all appearance of having lost her own life. Her body is sealed in a makeshift coffin with a hastily written note, and committed to the seas. Pericles, knowing the baby to be too weak to survive the journey to Tyre, diverts his journey to nearby Tarsus to leave the child, named Marina because she was born at sea, in the care of Cleon and Dyoniza.
Thaisa’s coffin, meanwhile, has been washed up on the shores of Ephesus, where it is found along with the jewels and letter Pericles placed with her. The ruler, Cerimon (Tom Jackson), is a skilled physician who sees Thaisa still has life within, and nurses her back to health. In gratitude, and thinking her husband and baby must have been lost at sea, Thaisa pledges herself to service as a priestess in the temple of Diana.
Fifteen years pass. Jealous Dyoniza becomes the stepmother of Snow White, and her servant, Leonine (Rob Gooch), the unwilling woodcutter sent to take Marina (Rachel Hammond) to her death, because the girl has grown in grace, gifts and beauty that challenge her own daughter, Philoten’s claim to be ‘the fairest in the land’. Leonine holds her, with a gun to her head, when two pirates intervene and carry off Marina for their own unsavoury purposes. Marina is sold as a prostitute in Mytilene, but her virtue and integrity shine out so radiantly that, rather than being besmirched, it cleanses the brothel. All of the final restorative action, pivots on her purity and character.
Pericles and his friend Helicanus return to Tarsus to see Marina, only to be greeted by a (false) monument that tells of her death. Distraught with grief, sailing the seas at random, and determined that he will never enjoy life again, his ship arrives at Mytiline, and the governor Lysimachus (Jared More) goes to welcome it. Seeing Pericles’ disposition, he sends for Marina, who has been allowed to leave the brothel, as he knows that if anyone can help him, she can. Marina sings for Pericles; a beautiful rendition of John Rutter’s composition, 'A Gaelic Blessing', that speaks deep into his heart and opens the way for conversation and healing.
Aware now that Marina is his lost daughter, Pericles hears the voice of the goddess Diana telling him to visit the temple at Ephesus. After a time of feasting and restoration of his joy at Mytilene, he travels there with Lysimachus, Helicanus and Marina. The family is complete again as Thaisa is reunited with her husband and child.
This Riding Lights adaptation of Pericles, Prince of Tyre is well-shaped and graciously put together. The cast members I haven’t mentioned so far, but need to be worthily recognised, are Bolt (Tom Peters), Bawdy (Mandy Newby), Messenger (Patrick Burbridge), Sailor (Ivan Scoble), and Lychonda (Rebecca Hare).
The production has tremendous relevance to the modern day and is open to so many connections being made in viewing it, but Riding Lights recognises that the viewer has intelligence enough to make those value judgements for themselves.
Families fleeing danger in flimsy boats that sail upon stormy seas; those who survive the journey, arriving at places where they are either not welcomed or danger is increased. Children raped by those who promise to secure their safety. Young people taken from the streets and transported across the seas to be sold into slavery or used as prostitutes. Babies being born in unsanitary conditions and stormy/war-torn situations. Children in foster care. Young people leaving care and abandoned by the safety of the system. War zones and battles for territory. Relationships between fathers and daughters. The allusions to the apostolic travels and Pericles as a type of Job. I happen to be watching on World Environment Day, so, as well as the newspaper gleanings of today, I’m also thinking of climate change, unusual weather patterns and oceanic disturbances. It’s all there for the taking, to draw upon as needed.
Shakespeare’s play, dated 1608/1609, can be transported into the mindset of twenty-firs century audiences in a way that defies history or emphasis, and in their green screen production, Riding Lights have proven the point with wisdom and elegance.
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