November 20, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Pericles (University College Cork/LittleShoes Productions) @ The Unitarian Church, Cork

I spent the first half of last week in Cork for the event ‘Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles, Prince of Tyre’. Part of the extensive Irish Shakespeare festival commemorating the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, this event was billed as offering what appears to be only the second ever performance of Pericles in Ireland, coupled with a day-long masterclass for which I was invited to give a keynote lecture.

The performance, a staged reading, brought together a local director and performers, many drawn from Cork’s student body. The simplicity of the staging aimed at clarity for an audience presumed to be unfamiliar with the play. This was supported by a truncated text (ninety minutes flat), conflation of characters (the most obvious being Pander and Bolt) and the regendering of roles to fit available actors (thus, Queen Simonides and the ‘good woman’ Helicane). But this was much more than a functional reading, with Sinéad Dunphy and her capable cast pulling out some fascinating subtleties in the text.

The cast were sat on chairs in rows, paired up, while Pericles (Mark O’Shaughnessy) sat in an armchair to one side. At the back of the ensemble, Gower was split into three women (Meghan McCarthy, Pamela Kiely and Edel Semple) who performed as a Chorus rather than a storyteller (the name Gower was omitted from the text). Lines were split between the three and occasionally spoken in unison, but their broader function was as an onstage audience, guiding the viewers through supportive nods and smiles with Marina, tuts and shakes at moments of villainy, and the holding up of swords, cups, letters and other emblematic props fitted to the action. This benevolent Chorus, emotionally invested in the events they narrated, also spoke the location for each scene, adding a presentational quality to the performance.

There were limited opportunities for mobility given the available space, but the company made use of what it had in the evocatively lit space of Cork’s Unitarian Church. Lucy O’Connell slumped head down in her chair as the ‘dead’ Thaisa, before slowly rising as Michael Ryan’s Cerimon brought her back round. The distance between the two during this, avoiding a more prosaic physical ‘cure’, suggested something of Cerimon’s power, and allowed unfettered access to the image of Thaisa unfurling and standing straight. A simple symmetry of staging separated the different families encountered by Pericles, keeping Cleon and Dionyza on one side (Cleon trapped behind his wife, illustrative of his relative impotence), Antiochus and his eager-to-please daughter on the other, and the genial Simonides (Ciara Hayes) presiding from the centre. Pericles himself was side-on to most of the action, staying close to his armchair and responding with gesture and emotion to the action in the centre of the stage, but also had to take on the responsibility for much of the reading’s movement, going back and forth between the different produced spaces.

The company succeeded particularly in two important aspects. The first was pathos; Nea Cornér’s Marina reunited with Pericles was the emotional climax, and the two actors played it with conviction, finding an urgency in the demands for clarity and reassurance. Thaisa’s faint in the presence of her husband was funnier in its suddenness (and also in the company effectively leaving her to lie there, an inherent visual peril of a staged reading), but as she came around and approached her husband, the production earned its emotional payoff. I also found the relative constraint of O’Shaughnessy’s reactions moving at times; especially when faced with Ryan’s hunched, leering Antiochus. Pericles’s issue is his inability to react fully to the events before him, constraining his grief, fear, anger and desire at different points in the play in service of a greater goal (such as not dying); O’Shaughnessy captured his occasional helplessness nicely.

The second was humour, in particular the brother scenes. Here Stefan Healy as Bolt was central, his rasping voice and shift from pragmatism to anger catching something of the character’s earthy frustrations. In combination with Hayes as the Bawd, the two landed their one-liners while not shying away from the horrors of the actions they described (and indeed, the arrival of Alex Dineen’s Lysimachus showed that their poisonous rhetoric was not confined to their occupation). And Helena Sheridan as Dionyza did wonders with an eye roll as she delivered her sorrowful eulogy for the ‘dead’ Marina.

But the production’s interest was also in magic. Elena Spautz doubled Antiochus’ daughter with Diana, making for an interesting interpretive connection as the previously eager/knowledgeable Daughter, the production’s model of corrupted sexuality, became the goddess of chastity and stood over the sleeping Pericles. This scene served as a proper reawakening for Pericles, who used it to take control of his own destiny. The act breaks were scored by wonderful live cello music, which contributed to the sense of a text striving after symmetry and harmony.

The simplicity of the reading thus allowed the performances to hold sway and the connections between characters to become apparent, sometimes enhanced by intelligent doubling. A multi-accented cast implied the international nature of this itinerant play, and it was a pleasure to hear the myriad voices of the play coming together in a shared, spare endeavour.

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