What have we learnt about theatre from watching productions at Shakespeare's Globe?
What have we learnt about theatre from watching productions at Shakespeare's Globe? Well, many things, but high on the list is the degree to which English drama is gloriously impure. Unlike, say, its French equivalent, English has never operated an apartheid system that segregates high-minded tragedy from supposedly low comedy. It has magnificently mongrel instincts, and knows that these discrepant perspectives on life need constant testing by being brought into rude collision with each other. The Globe's architecture encompasses both tragic sublimity by constituting an absolute metaphor for the world and human transience, and the mischievous comic complicity naturally fostered by a stage that juts into a crowd of groundlings.
The extraordinarily wide range of tones to which this building gives a democratic hearing is demonstrated, with particular clarity and power, by Kathryn Hunter's spectacular and sensitive, knockabout and nuanced, mugging and mysterious production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It tells the story of a young hero who suffers a kind of breakdown after discovering the incestuous secret of the King of Antioch and his daughter. Pericles is then pitched through a tempest-tossed odyssey, in which he loses his wife, and his own daughter Marina, and then retreats into almost catatonic grief. It's as though the threat of incest hovers as an un-purged possibility over his life, until it is releasingly annulled in the miraculous scene of recognition and reunion with Marina.
Hunter's production thrillingly takes the storms right out into the audience, with mariners swinging on ropes in dizzying desperation and clutching for dear life onto the packed balconies. The cast clearly includes a lot of highly skilled aerialists. The tournament at Pentapolis in which Robert Lucskay's charismatic, East European-accented, young Pericles wins his wife, is here a competitive orgy of vertiginous daredevil stunts. How will the hero be able to top these? The audience laughs in indulgent mockery before Lucskay stills the house by simply going down on one knee before his future spouse and singing a little unaccompanied song to her. That's typical of the way the clashing moods in this production are used to heighten one another.
This principle of jostling, generous coexistence is embodied in the splendid performance of Patrice Naiambana. His narrator Gower is an outrageously charming and wily African storyteller who delights in departing from his brief to josh the punters about everything from the anti-snob nature of the Globe ("if you want 'art' go to a museum") to their memory of the highly episodic plot. But it makes perfect imaginative sense that he slips into the serious role of the Doctor Cerimon, who brings the wife back to life by launching into a haunting African chant.
In this version, the older Pericles (beautifully spoken by Corin Redgrave) is on stage throughout and the action is presented as past experience that he needs to relive and reassess, before he can make climactic breakthroughs.
I'm unsure of the logical coherence of that strategy, but I am certain that the painful loveliness and mystical dimension of the great recognition scene are intensified here by the underscoring of comic aspects. Faced with what looks like a miracle, Redgrave's Pericles keeps clutching onto the documentary facts like a pedantic fusspot professor. There are sequences that are indulgently over-extended, but, in general, this Pericles is a delightful feat of navigation.
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