July 19, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Pembroke Arcadia (Fluellen Theatre) @ Taliesin Arts Centre
Romance has had something of a resurgence in recent years on the UK stage, with high-profile productions of Pericles and Cymbeline joining the more regularly staged Winter’s Tale and Tempest, and scattered productions of both Tudor and Jacobean/Caroline romances by Lyly, Greene, Fletcher and others have found welcoming audiences. To adapt one of the period’s iconic prose/poetry romances for the stage, however, is quite another undertaking. Commissioned by the National Theatre of Wales, Fluellen Theatre’s retelling of the Arcadia – taking the Countess of Pembroke’s seat as an excuse to emphasise Welshness – was a bold, tongue-in-cheek, and thoroughly entertaining pass.
Rehearsed in only eight days with a cast of eight, this was a bare-bones production, with one cast member still on book and a very simple set built around a single platform. But in many ways, the bareness of the production worked in the production’s favour. Arcadia’s protean nature – its forests and art galleries, wild beasts and mobs, mountain shepherds and ports – were fleeting and insubstantial, evoked rhetorically but quickly undermined. While the production was predominantly comic, D.J. Britton’s adaptation captured something of the sinister underbelly as ‘traditional’ values are challenged and violence emerges, and the bare stage allowed these subversions of the superficies to be thorough and sudden.
The Pembroke Arcadia offered a surprisingly full distillation of the Sidneys’ work into a single two-hour play. Princes Pyrocles (James Scannell) and Musidorus (Huw Novelli) find themselves washed up on the shores of Arcadia, and Pyrocles promptly falls in love with the portrait of the younger of the land’s two princesses, Philoclea (Annie Davis). The duke, Basilius (Clive Riches), having received an unfavourable oracle, has already removed his whole family to live in the mountains, with men forbidden to approach on pain of death, and so Pyrocles disguises himself as an Amazon in order to integrate himself with the royal family, complicated by both Basilius and his wife Gynecia (Claire Novelli) falling in love with him as well. Musidorus, meanwhile, falls in love with her older sister Pamela (Danica Swinton), and disguises himself as a shepherd with similar aims.
The tone of the production was set by the parodic comradeship of Pyrocles and Musidorus, two breast-beating, manly men, obsessed with fighting and honour. The production didn’t shy away from the homoeroticism of their relationship, with Pyrocles anxiously asking Musidorus what he thinks of love, and leaving a beat after Musidorus queried ‘with a woman?’ ‘… Yes’. In Scannell’s performance, Pyrocles lived at extremes of emotion; struck by the portrait of Philoclea (performed by the royal family walking on stage and holding frames around their faces), his reaction to Philoclea’s image was one of physical pain and lengthy exploration of what exactly was happening within him, culminating in him calling for help. Novelli’s Musidorus, meanwhile, was driven by a rigid adherence to honour, and much slower to change, resulting in a great deal of comedy as he literally read the riot act to Pyrocles, reminding him of his own father’s warnings against women, warnings Pyrocles now dismissed with swooning emotion.
The disguises undertook by the two men instigated a series of identity crises, first as Pyrocles appeared dressed in lipstick, breastplate and long skirt and began affixing earrings, and Musidorus attempted to reconcile himself to the decision, first working himself through a logical process where to abandon his friend would be a defilement of his honour, then grudgingly admitting that Pyrocles looked pretty. Musidorus’s own disguise as shepherd, meanwhile, involved him channelling his own awkwardness in the role of lover into the persona of a shy shepherd, barely able to look at Pamela and in some ways overcome by his own character. One of the most outright funny moments involved Musidorus shaking Pamela’s hand and not letting go for a good couple of pages of dialogue while the princess politely tried to extricate herself, Musidorus at this point so lost in the role of ‘Master Doras’ that he temporarily lost the ability to interact.
The court-in-the-country was riven by passive-aggressive family tensions. Philoclea was fashion-conscious, insisting on wearing her platforms in the mountains, while the sterner Pamela was more focused on her future rule and the family’s fortunes, though not immune to ‘Doras’s’ charms. Basilius was slow, distracted by his constant writing of poetry, and inattentive to Gynecia; Gynecia, meanwhile, was the sharpest tool in the box and the first to see through Pyrocles’s disguise. The intrusion of ‘Cleophilia’ into their lives queered the rural community, with both Philoclea and Gynecia trying to reconcile their attraction to the Amazon warrior with their own gender identity, and Pyrocle/Cleophilia reconstructing him/herself as manipulative object of desire. Coded as illicit for all three (whether because of marriage or perceived same-sex attraction), the desire enacted transformation on all three: Basilius reimagining himself as a lusty young lover, Gynecia becoming a would-be villain willing to bring down everyone else with her, and Philoclea becoming rebellious. These disruptions were mirrored by reports of the city of Arcadia falling into riot in the absence of its ruling family.
The production nicely balanced its levels of threat. When a lion and bear attacked the royal family, the scene was played for comedy, Pyrocles and Musidorus leaping into battle by running off into the wings then crossing the stage again twice to swap combatants, before returning with trophies of a bear paw and lion tail to present to a disgusted Pamela. On the other hand, the production played up the extent of Gynecia’s descent into villainy, her quiet sense of betrayal at Pyrocles preferring her daughter to herself fuelling a determination to have all or lose all, and her intelligence and insight making her a genuine threat to herself as well as to those around her.
This threat was counter-balanced by the excellent comic performances of Andrew Lennon as the clown-shepherd Dametas, and Kath Weare as his horny daughter Mopsa. The two offered bathetic commentary on the hyperbolised romances of the noble figures, their personal ambitions leading them into trouble in ways mirrored by the twists and turns of the choices of the disguised princes. Within the Musidorus-Pamela plot, the two became obstacles and foils in a way that disgraces Musidorus, first as he pretended to woo Mopsa in order to make Pamela notice him, and then as he stranded Mopsa in a tree with promises of a spell of eternal beauty, and sent Dametas off to a mythical money-tree. While the production did bring up these ignoble usages of the shepherds, I did feel that it might have done more to trouble the treatment of the lower classes by the privileged princes.
The least successful moment of the production saw the sudden artificial staging of a debate between reason and passion, so awkward that Musidorus and Pamela ran onstage to join the debate from nowhere. The rhyming back-and-forth was fun, but the whole seemed oddly integrated into a plot that saw the discontented city-dwellers encroaching on the story. More effective were the closing moves into a more serious mode. Pyrocles attempted to resolve the different claims on his love by forcing Gynecia and Basilius into a bed-trick, during which Gynecia gave Basilius a Viagra-like potion that apparently killed him. The arrest of Gynecia, Musidorus and Pyrocles for the murder took a surprisingly severe turn, with the anonymous judge (Lennon again) taking the strictest possible interpretation of the princes’ actions, and a repentant, despairing Gynecia seemingly unable to defend herself. The happy resolution – as the body of Basilius suddenly came to life, and the judge was revealed to be Pyrocles’ father – thus worked surprisingly well as a resolution, bringing the parodic comedy to a serious head before twisting it improbably into reconciliation.
As an efficient and accessible telling of a long but important romance – whose resonances of The Winter’s Tale, Mucedorus and Pericles were particularly clear in this version – Fluellen did an excellent job. While this was at an early stage of development, and would probably have benefitted from some judicious chopping in the second half, the play felt respectful of its source while gently mocking it, and captured some of the tonal ambiguity of the romance. Assuming it makes it to a tour next year, it’ll be well worth revisiting.