While Spoleto Festival is perhaps best known for its cutting-edge premieres of opera, dance, and theater, it grants special dispensation periodically to productions by English language’s favorite bard, William Shakespeare. In 2013, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by Bristol Old Vic with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, became a festival hit and remains indelibly etched in my mind. This year, London’s Globe Theatre has brought three highly energetic productions performed in repertory, all by the same 8-person acting ensemble.
I was particularly interested to see Shakespeare’s less well-known Comedy of Errors and the even more rarely produced Pericles. I caught them both at the Dock Street Theatre, which, with its wood paneled boxes and proscenium stage, created an intimate relationship with audience that suggested the rebuilt Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank, a vision initiated by American actor-director Sam Wanamaker.
Both productions showed off to great advantage the sheer verve and individual talents in this young troupe. Indications of fault lines were also revealed, both in the works themselves and in the mastery and maturity of the actors’ instruments.
Of the two, Pericles proved finally the most satisfying (with extra marks for degree of difficulty,) but there were things to recommend in both shows.
In style, the two productions showed some similarities and economy of means. There is no music indicated by Shakespeare in either play as written but it’s been all the rage for some time in mounting Shakespeare to welcome audience members and create popular appeal by having actors play instruments and incorporate ensemble singing. This ensemble used the unlikely combo of accordion, trombone, fiddle, banjo, recorder, African drum, and washboard. Their playing was enthusiastic, and their vocal harmonies lovely. They gave us an altogether hearty and naughtily suggestive rendition of “Bully in the Alley” with Eric Sirakian’s strong vocals, then in Pericles, Evelyn Miller took the lead and soloed nicely on another sea shanty “Leave Her, Johnny, leave her.”
Andrew D. Edwards made a single design statement with a façade providing several “classic” entrances above and below. Simple exposed poles were lashed together as braces for the backdrop that looked to be made up of wood planks. This served to represent palaces, merchant homes, bawd house, ships, and temples, as needed, creating a fluid space as was customary in traditional productions of Shakespeare. Costumes, presumably also by Edwards, clothed the entire cast in gray leggings overlaid with gender-neutral “skorting.” Over this, actors managed quick changes with the help of tunics, robes, wraps, and various head coverings. I particularly liked the touches of bright African fabrics and skins in Pericles, which also incorporated fight choreography with long sticks. (The wandering Pericles cast out globally in this production with choices that suited the rich representation and strengths of this multi-cultural cast.)
All the actors were at least double cast in both productions, and several did even more duty, giving all the performers sizeable parts and opportunities to create sharply differentiated characters.
The Comedy of Errors
At the center of Comedy of Errors, there are two pairs of prominent twins, separated at birth, and much fun to be had in the switching back and forth of mistaken identities. Andrius Gau?as made an immediate impression as the beautiful but totally narcissistic master of the universe, Antipholus of Ephesus, who can never quite get over himself. Colin Campbell plays the more sympathetic twin, if a little clueless. He reaps ever more luck and fortune due to mistaken identity as the show goes on to the point he gets to dine and presumably bed his Ephesian twin’s wife. Beau Holland and Sirakian show themselves to possess true clowning skills as the much-abused servants of their masters.
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But quite honestly, I’ve always found the joke that serves as premise for the play grows a little stale. I’ve never thought a family where one beds his brother’s wife can be all that funny. Neither, to modern audiences, are the repeated beatings of the two luckless servants get.
Pericles with an even more complicated plot and decidedly many more characters and “ports in a storm” to track can prove even trickier. But the many characterizations proved inventive and delightful, particularly how the actors managed both the dark and light colors that are mixed in the play.
Mark Desebrock is a terrific actor with a clear sense of emotional truth, yet he can pull out the stops to invent wildly original characterizations. Compare his Cleon, a tyrannical ruler who kills suitors for his daughter rather than give up his incestuous claims on her to another ruler he plays a short time later. For another ruler (Simonides?) methinks he must have inhaled a great deal of helium, for he is was bouncy and giddy as a balloon, rolling in ecstatic somersaults, and irrepressibly happy. He confounds even his daughter and her would-be wooer Pericles, not to mention gaming the audience more than once.
Actress Holland seems equally inventive and clearly enjoys plucking characters out of the air and transforming in nano-seconds physically and vocally. One of her strongest roles was in Pericles where she mines the role of Dionyza, first seeming a gracious and hospitable queen and hostess, but later as she contemplates and justifies the killing of Marina, a ward in her charge, we see her show her true colors. Holland never drops the charming, well-bred veneer of ladylike gesture and voice, and it makes her Dionysia all her more chilling.
Best about the production are the extended scenes, where we can watch the actors’ take hold in dramatic relationship. When Dionyza turns out to be treacherous and orders Leonine (Mogali Masuku) to assassinate Marina, Miller’s desperate and weak physicality pleading for her life is in stark contrast to Masuku’s dead-eyed, lupus prowl in the shadows, totally opposite to the creatures they created in other scenes. (Earlier, Miller’s Lychorida created one of the most exciting and believably dramatic moments in this or any Shakespeare production of this play as she physically fights to stay aboard a ship in a roiling storm and with her will and near super human strength to save the child left in her care.)
The trio of Campbell as Pander, Holland as The Bawd, and Sirakian as Bolt give us a show-stopping scene where comedy and horror are inextricably entwined and with delicious detailed business. Holland, in curlers and spangled housedress, triesto take long drags on her cigarette which wont’s stay lit then French kisses her “pet” Bolt, while this churlish cur thinks to deflower the troublesome Marina himself but keeps getting distracted by a “treat” of coins. Meanwhile Pander, similarly spangled to his wife in what might seem to be an act in drag, bullies then whines apologetically in one of the many direct addresses to audience, he’s just trying to run a family business.
But there are more than a few loose ends to all this. Most troublesome in the writing is the role of Narrator. In Henry V, Shakespeare nails some of his best choric speeches. Here Gower’s function of narration is to affect scene changes but the speeches offer little in the way of bold poetic images that on our imaginations hold. Natasha Magigi seems to get trapped in this role, and can’t seem to find the variation in vocal line to pull it off.
In fact, the ensemble seems inconsistent in vocal support and delivery. This inconsistency made me wonder whether the training in British drama schools has changed so drastically in recent years, that the practice of delivering Shakespeare’s musical lines has been jettisoned overboard like poor Pericles’ wife. Miller, who sings like a dream and offers a great physical prowess as an actress, never vocally releases, so her inhalation and attack tends to blast at the same starting pitch and get trapped in vocal peril. Gaucas’ performance likewise gets weakened by a habitual vocal attack at the beginning of lines. Campbell’s Pericles initially struggles to assert himself vocally as the lead. He sure pulls it out when he emerges from his hermit phase and rediscovers his family alive. The actors’ (and their characters’) thick and highly varying accents also proved challenging at times to American audiences.
As this was towards the end of my Spoleto visit, I couldn’t help but begin to notice images that spoke to other productions. Was I only imagining themes, mimes and tropes? I’d say decapitated heads and incest were highly featured this year, not to mention voyages, shipwrecks, and mistaken identities.
As in Pericles, so in Spoleto, all the world is a stage, and the stage is getting ever more global.
Spoleto Festival 2019 – Comedy of Errors and Pericles. Written by William Shakespeare.
Directed by Brendan O’Hea. Design by Andrew D. Edwards. Lighting Design by Paul Russell. Costumes by Lorraine Ebdon-Price. Fight Director Kevin McCurdy. With Colin Campbell, Mark Desebrock, Andrius Gau?as, Beau Holland, Natasha Magigi, Mogali Masuku, Evelyn Miller, and Eric Sirakian. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Time: Each production is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.