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June 28, 2005

Too Much Shouting: Pericles at The Globe

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's Pericles
directed by Kathryn Hunter
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 20th May - 1st October 2005

David Wootton, the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History, finds that there is too much shouting in the Globe's production of Pericles - and blames the director.

Oh dear! The problem with the theatre is that it is live, which means that if it is no good you have to be in the presence of the actors as they struggle to make their best of a bad job. You end up hoping they can't see you, and wishing you couldn't see them. Pericles is a notoriously shapeless and difficult play, so the obvious advice to anyone thinking of putting it on is "Don't". About three years ago, unfortunately, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) did a wonderful production, the finest thing I have ever seen on a stage in all my life. This has made Pericles a fashionable play. The RSC imported into Shakespeare the fashionable trope (now it even precedes the TV news) of having people hanging from ropes and twirling about, so since their production everyone thinks that Pericles is the ideal opportunity to do Shakespeare as physical theatre. As usual, everyone is wrong.

This production has a very simple flaw. It very largely consists of people running around and shouting. Every gesture is exaggerated. It comes from what Alison calls the Vogon school of theatre directing. Through the first half there was hardly a moment when we weren't being shouted at from the stage. No modulation, no variety, no subtlety. Constant bellowing, grimacing and arm waving. Much of the bellowing in rather strange accents with rather strange intonations, and with enormous emphasis on rhyme words. I don't see how it could possibly work, and the fact that it didn't work must surely have been apparent long before it was exposed to a paying audience.

That's the main problem. There are a number of others. Corin Redgrave, the leading man, has fallen ill; a brave understudy who has had less than two weeks in the job was playing the part rather well, sometimes with book in hand, sometimes forgetting his lines and sometimes having difficulty finding his place in the book. On the night we saw it (22nd June) another actor fell ill in the heat, and so her part was read for the second half, again rather well. There was a general air of the show must go on, no matter what. It dawned on me towards the end that those on stage were probably every bit as keen to go home as I was.

And if you are playing to a half full, and not entirely enthusiastic house, you should probably cut down on the tricks that work well in a full and enthusiastic house pulling members of the audience up on stage, or asking the audience questions and requiring them to respond, or requiring them to clap in time to the music. At one point the audience was told it would be kept in the theatre until it improved its performance. "We have all night". And indeed we ran twenty minutes over schedule.

The production plays fast and loose with the script. We had references to asylum seekers. Everyone posed for a photograph. We were told the country of origin of all the performers. We were told that if we had come for art we had come to the wrong place we were going to be given life instead. Need I say that the actors were in modern dress?

Now I don't want to say that it was entirely dreadful. The brothel scenes were horrible, but that was an achievement, and what the play requires. Marina was well-played, and Pericles' discovery that she was his daughter was moving. During the second half there were times when they were only two people on stage, no one was running around, and no one was shouting. There was a sense of the possibility of something wonderful. But one good half hour in three is hardly enough.

I realise the actors were all doing their best under difficult circumstances. I realise that most of them really can act if they are given the chance. So let's be frank: I blame the director. You really don't need to shout in the Globe in order to be heard, so why have everyone shouting all the time? And, to go back to the beginning, if you are going to put on a play that is obviously difficult to stage, you need to have a plan. You need to have a vision of the play, a sense of its emotional register, an idea of how it should look, a project for evoking certain feelings in the audience. This is a play about loss, about grief, about survival, about shipwreck, about having nowhere to call your home. It is a play about the absolute wickedness of many human beings, and the goodness of a few. It is a play about second chances. If you started designing a production starting from these premises, would you get the production we saw at the Globe? I don't think so. Oh dear!

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.

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I do sympathise with the author - excessive shouting can be the most annoying thing in a theatre production. It has spoilt rather too many plays for me. Perhaps time for a new protest movement - a claque of shouters against shouting.

Posted by: Ella at July 2, 2005 10:37 AM
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