MIND, PASSION AND HEALING – Exhilarating theatre rescues a festival buffeted by SARS and uneven productions.
There are times when theatre seems to rediscover its roots in ancient religious ceremony, evoking a response so strong that only words like “sacred” or “mysterious” can come close to describing what happens. You might find yourself shaking, pitched into powerful emotions by the events on stage. Perhaps you weep, as you reconnect with truths long forgotten. Of course, such an experience is rare. In a lifetime of going to the theatre, I’ve only experienced it four or five times. But it happened recently at the Stratford Festival, during the climax of Shakespeare’s seldom-staged Pericles, Prince of Tyre. When the prince (Jonathan Goad), worn out by many years of wandering, is unexpectedly reunited with his daughter, Marina (Nazneen Contractor), whom he has not seen since she was a baby, the incident is so intensely and skilfully acted that the world’s ills seem briefly mended.
Naturally the event does not happen in a vacuum. The production, staged by guest director Leon Rubin, leads up to the meeting between Marina and Pericles with extraordinary panache, animating a play most directors wouldn’t touch with latex gloves. The problem is that Shakespeare only wrote part of it. The drama is an uneven patchwork of scenes, and in most presentations, a total bore. But Rubin, who last season brought to life Shakespeare’s problematic Henry VI cycle, has lavished on it the riches of a unique imagination. He has set his Pericles in royal courts spread over much of the world, from the Mideast to Japan and Bali, generating a lavish pageantry that hides most of the play’s weaknesses while at the same time dramatizing the evolution of Pericles’ character. Rubin has also used the vertical height of the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage to great effect: in the shipwreck scene Pericles falls from a mast, his body flailing in slow motion as it descends through the blue depths of the sea.
The success of Pericles – theatre-goers frequently give it teary standing ovations – could not come at a better time for a festival hit hard by shrinking ticket sales. Thanks to SARS – and rumours of SARS – Americans, who normally generate 37 per cent of box office sales, are staying away in droves. It’s also been a difficult year critically, with several disappointing productions, including writer Rick Whelan’s unfocused dramatization of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and director Miles Potter’s chaotic version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Coming after last year’s triumphant 50th anniversary celebrations, Stratford’s current season sometimes has the grim air of a morning after.
The good news is the festival still has much to offer the discriminating ticket-buyer – such as its near-perfect production of the 1939 Noel Coward comedy, Present Laughter, so finely shaped by its director and star, Brian Bedford, that it generates laughter like the best of champagnes. And director Martha Henry has imbued her version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with great clarity and integrity, with a particularly compelling performance from the perennially sexy Diane D’Aquila as the queen of Egypt.
As for Pericles, it offers a chance to observe one of the world’s most exciting directors develop his stagecraft. For this, the festival’s artistic director, Richard Monette, deserves considerable credit. Letting Rubin stage the little-known Pericles in the festival’s largest theatre and giving him the resources to realize his vision – including the hiring of the Thailand-based American composer Bruce Gaston, whose score lends a haunting fourth dimension to the show – was a gamble that has paid off handsomely. Monette has a considerable flair for spotting talent, and his increasing willingness to bring in outsiders such as Greece’s Nikos Dionysios, who directs Aristophanes’s comedy The Birds, is helping to establish the festival as a kind of Camelot where international masters can rub shoulders with their Canadian counterparts.
Rubin, a balding, animated, 49-year-old Englishman based in London, is remarkable not just for his directorial skills, but also for the ideas that inform them. His roots are in traditional British theatre, with its emphasis on language. But he has spent much of the past two decades staging and studying theatre around the world, and particularly in the Far East. These influences show up, usually much transformed, in Pericles. For example, the slow, hypnotic movements of the show’s narrator, Gower (Thom Marriott), are based on Japanese hutch dance. And the way Rubin has Gower first appear, amid a river of flowing white silk, mirrors Eastern theatrical traditions, with their emphasis on fusing set and actor in a single organic vision.
So is Rubin hoping to contribute to a new kind of world theatre? “Yes,” enthuses the director, who teaches at London’s Middlesex University. “I’m very consciously trying to be part of it. Just now I feel is the time I’m doing my best work, bringing together the two strands of my career – my roots in text-based English theatre, and the highly visual and physical techniques of the East. The merger, the totality, the symbiosis of these is for me very exciting.” Rubin has little patience, though, with directors who borrow elements from the East, and “stick them on like decorations, without understanding what they’re about. I find that profoundly irritating.”
Rubin is also taking part in another of Monette’s most inspired ventures – the staging, in the intimate new Studio Theatre, of three plays focusing on the classic Greek myth of the murder of King Agamemnon. Rubin’s work on Jean Giraudoux’s 1936 play, Electra, initially bogged down, the director admits, because he didn’t know how to energize the rather static philosophical arguments that litter the text. Finally, the director, who speaks several languages, went back to the French original. “I think I found the key to it – a lot of the writing is tongue-in-cheek. The journey to the end is full of mischief, though this doesn’t tend to come through in English translations.”
Rubin’s witty and disturbing production – he has clothed it in the French fashions of 1936, rather than in the traditional Greek robes – may be the most consistently successful of the three in the Studio. But the other two shows, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 anti-fascist drama, The Flies, and Aeschylus’s great fifth-century B.C. play, Agamemnon (in a vivid translation by poet Ted Hughes), extend a rare opportunity to see different authors attack the same story from various angles. One cast performs all three plays, and so anyone who buys tickets to all the shows gets the thrill of watching that superb Stratford actor, Scott Wentworth, offer contrasting takes – archly noble, cunning, comically despairing – on the character of Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s evil successor. Add several such fine performances to the exhilarating intellectual challenge posed by these meditations on the nature of freedom and power, and you get an awful lot of reasons to be grateful for the Stratford Festival, even in a less than banner year.
Stratford City Gazette
This production is simply amazing. The cast, the set, the music, the costumes are all so tightly woven that it is not possible to praise it all here. Director Leon Rubin, who last year directed the Henry VI saga, has set this Mediterranean story all over south-east Asia, allowing exploration Arabia, India, Japan, Bali, Thailand and Greece, with at least two fantastic showpieces in Japan and Bali.
What else makes this show outstanding? Unlike other productions that might have a month of previews, this show only had three previews before a live audience before it opened to a full house and a standing ovation. So, as good as it was opening night, it’s still going to get better and better.
Watch out, King and Shrew – Pericles’ ship has come in.
“To sing a song that old was sung / From ashes ancient Gower is come.”
Leon Rubin’s Stratford production takes this hint with bewitching literalness.
All this is magic, taking up all the cues for showmanship that are built into the play.
In all, the production is a delight; and, coming at the end of a most uneven opening week, it’s a fair haven such as might have been welcomed by the storm-tossed Pericles himself.
DIRECTOR EXPERTLY GUIDES US THROUGH PUZZLING SHAKESPEARE PLAY.
The two most exciting things in the theatre are experiencing a production that exceeds expectations and witnessing the birth of a star. The Stratford Festival production of Pericles, that opened Saturday night at the Festival Theatre, delivers both. Big time. The emerging star is Jonathan Goad in first title role. This is his fifth Stratford season.
Thanks to the complementary visions of director Leon Rubin and designer John Pennoyer, the production is a conceptual and visual trial. In his massive study of Shakespeare, American critic Harold Bloom confesses that Pericles is the only play in the cannon he “would rather attend than reread”. If only he were lucky enough to see this extraordinary production.
Famously denounced by Ben Johnson as a “mouldy tale”, Pericles is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Many critics content Shakespeare didn’t write the first twos acts, hastening Bloom to describe it as “not only uneven (and mutilated) but very peculiar in genre”. Rubin solves the riddle of Pericles by [painting] large Pericles’ inward journey – at once emotional, psychological and spiritual – against a rich and vibrant backdrop. Consequently, Pericles’ worldly travels become the outward manifestation of his inward journey. Geography coalesces with dream, nightmare and vision.
Rubin has a home in Thailand and obviously knows Southeast Asia well. He draws on that knowledge to transfer Shakespeare’s undisclosed setting in the Middle East to feudal Japan, Bali, Thailand, India, Greece and Arabia.
Initially I had misgivings that changing the title of Shakespeare’s least-performed romance was a marketing ploy but, after seeing this marvellous adventure voyage, I’m no longer suspicious of motives.
Rubin and actor Thom Marriott combine to transform the chorus role of Gower into pure stage magic.
Like all of the late romances, Pericles has elements of folktale and fairytale, magic and mystery. Rubin finds theatrical metaphors for these through song and dance (by way of choreographer Donna Feore) and puppetry, not to mention the four elements of air, fire, water and earth.
This is Shakespearean production at its best which, after all, is what the Stratford Festival is all about.
The sun shines brighter this morning. After a disappointing opening that featured some of the feeblest shows in recent memory, the Stratford Festival redeemed itself Saturday night with Pericles. One of Shakespeare’s least-known plays, this is only the third time in Stratford’s history it has been produced. (And, in the interests of full disclosure, this would be the place to mention that I directed the most recent version, in 1986). But whether it was the freshness of the material, the relative youth of most of the cast, or the fact that this marked Leon Rubin’s directorial debut on the Festival Stage, an exhilarating sense of discovery fills the entire proceedings.
It’s tricky stuff, and to make it work you need a director with insight, a designer with imagination, an a leading man with star quality. Fortunately all three are present here.
Leon Rubin sees the play as a journey through Asia, and although it doesn’t make strict geographical sense, the theatrical benefits are immense. Scenes are set in Japan, India, Thailand and Bali. However, in Rubin’s vision, it’s not just an excuse for pretty costumes, but an opportunity to explore the spirituality of each culture. Make no mistake; Pericles is on a moral quest as well as a heroic one, and Rubin’s concept allows us to explore the variety of ways in which a man makes contact with the forces in the universe greater than himself.
Designer John Pennoyer has turned the Festival stage into a blank white canvas on which he may paint his pictures. But rather than surfeiting us with spectacle, he knows how to hold the eye with one well-chosen image, whether it be a sweeping sail, or a woman’s sea-blue dress. This is not to imply that the show doesn’t have it’s eye-popping visual moments.
But all this vision would be of little use without the cast to back it up, and here, Rubin has been blessed.
This is a cause for celebration, the kind of show that serves as a reminder of the things you really go to the theatre for: entertainment, yes, but also enlightenment and joy. If you see only one show this summer, then let it be Pericles.
PERICLES LEADS YEAR’S TOP 10 PLAYS
This is one of the most imaginative shows Stratford has brought us in ages, and the marvel is that it happened with a seldom-produced piece of Shakespeare’s. The direction of Leon Rubin, design of John Pennoyer and performance in the title role of Jonathan Goad made this a piece of theatre that stirred the heart as much as it pleased the eye.
Beacon Herald and London Free Press
DAZZLING, BREATHTAKING PERICLES ‘A MUST SEE’
Pericles may well be the hit of the 2003 Stratford season. It’s a dazzling display of superb acting, breathtaking costumes and sets and all the magic the Festival wizards can conjure up.
Under the creative direction of Leon Rubin, this production demonstrates what a marvellous tale Pericles is.
The lavish spectacle in this production, spellbinding though it is, enhances rather than competes with the theme of the play.
Detroit Free Press
It is a rare treat in the 21st Century to be able to meet Shakespeare with fresh eyes.
Speaking of fresh eyes, Leon Rubin’s production, with sets and costumes designed by John Pennoyer, tells its tale with a dazzling assortment of visual touches.
In an age that has produced space shuttles and the Internet, it’s some challenge to recapture the sense of exoticism and wonder at the core of a play written 400 years ago. But, wonder of wonders, the Stratford Theatre Festival of Canada does exactly that in Shakespeare’s The Adventures of Pericles, a mesmerizing voyage that well may prove to be this summer’s sleeper attraction.
It’s hardly a stretch to call designer John Pennoyer and director Leon Rubin the co-stars of this fascinating venture. Every port of call brings a fresh array of gorgeous costumes, and all along the way Rubin – who did the festival’s superb distillation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays last summer – moves his characters as if to the rhythm of fortunes ebb and flow.
This splendid production boasts its finest in Rubin’s concept of the narrator. Given the name Gower by Shakespeare, he appears here as an elusive character painted in white and perhaps evocative of the all-governing god of the sea, Poseidon. To Gower’s narrative and chorus-like commentary, Thom Marriott brings the measured, sure voice of a good story-teller, one who takes us happily to exotic port of the imagination.
Classical 96.3 FM
Some Stratford productions become the stuff of legends, and such a one is director Leon Rubin’s spectacular mounting of Shakespeare’s The Adventures of Pericles. In a word, his masterfully conceived vision is unforgettable.
This is simply one of the most gorgeous productions to ever grace the Stratford stage – magical, mystical and mysterious – but despite the outer magnificence, Rubin never forgets that these are people in dire distress.
Pericles was hugely popular back in Shakespeare’s time with audiences of the day lustily roaring their approval from the pit. And it deserves renewed popularity, with Stratford Festival audiences this summer. In the production which opened Saturday night, British director Leon Rubin and designer John Pennoyer have utilised the remarkable resources of the Festival Theatre stage to transport audiences on a wondrous journey into the imagination. This is not only a deeply satisfying treatment of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays; it is also an enormously entertaining one. It shows what happens when a gifted director is granted the opportunity to refine and illuminate such material. In fact, let’s go out on a limp and suggest that this one production contains more genuine originality than all of Stratford’s opening-week offerings combined.
The production abounds in stunning visual effects yet it’s all achieved with a brilliant economy. There are also scenes of genuine emotional beauty. There is also comedy. Indeed the number of outstanding individual performances is truly satisfying, because it doesn’t happen that often when Stratford does Shakespeare.