After the success of last year’s Henry V, the York Shakespeare Project is set to take another Shakespeare play into a new and unexpected realm with this year’s production of Pericles. A new era, setting and a re-imagined narrative will shed some light on this lesser-known play. We spoke to both director Sophie Patterson and lead actor Andrew Isherwood about the upcoming performance.
Interview with Sophie Paterson, Director.
Pericles will open in an 18th-century “sea-side pub,” what made you choose this new setting for the play?
Well, as it happens, I was gardening at the time the idea struck me. I’d heard that YSP was doing Pericles, a play I have a history with, so I was mulling over how to pitch it. It was raining out, and as I was pulling weeds listening to sea-shanties, and it occurred to me that sailors were the natural story-tellers of this play about the sea. The ocean acts as the most magnificent metaphor in Pericles: the passage of time, the turning of the tides, love lost and found. One of the beautiful things about this play is that despite all odds, crippling circumstances and tragic loss, everything comes together again in the final act.
When you think about where Shakespeare was in his life at the time of Pericles, the play takes on a new meaning. Here was a man towards the end of his career, and in the text you can hear his meditation on life, examining the relationship with his daughters (not to mention the loss of his son), and his hope that everything will have been worth it. That somehow, things will be alright. Wrongs forgiven. Love restored. I think that’s the dream for all of us.
So, I was listening to this Stan Rogers song in the rain pulling weeds – and I had my opening image. Amidst the joy and warmth of a community pub, a limping soldier stands and sings. This man has newly returned home, broken and lost, and his community rallies around him. “You know what’ll make you feel better? Let’s tell that story we always tell. It’s going to be OK. We’ve got you.”
I was especially impressed by the set and design elements to last year’s Henry V from YSP, can you tell me a little about what we can expect this year?
That really was an exquisite production. With Pericles, we’re working a bit more minimalistically. The audience sit on either side of the ‘stage’, and we have two bars where the public can buy drinks before the show (and we have barmaids to serve them during), one of which becomes a playing space once the story begins unfolding. Music has also been integral for us. We’re using the choral voices of the actors to denote transitions, shifts in mood, or poignant personal connections.
The costumes are perhaps the most traditional element of our staging, which have been beautifully made and acquired by Amy Rhianne, We kept coming back to this idea of The Gower Inn as a place just outside of reality – like a fresh watercolour picture of a sea-side pub that was painted from the pier as it began to rain. The colours sort of blur together, and you get the sense of the thing, from which you can interpret what you wish, as opposed to the stark and defined boundaries of a panoramic digital camera snapshot on a sunny day.
Pericles had a bit of a ‘moment’ last year, with Trevor Nunn’s production in February and Dominic Dromgoole’s at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in November, have either of these productions or Pericles’ popularity last year influenced your direction?
It’s funny you should mention that. Generally I try to avoid looking at what other people are doing/have done with the plays I’m working on, because I like to work with the immediacy of a production’s circumstances and the people involved without worrying about mimicking or contrasting another interpretation of the text. But that can be difficult.
There are definite similarities between Nunn’s production and ours – which was completely unintentional, I swear! But I read about his thoughts on Shakespeare turning to story-telling theatre with Pericles, because of where he was in his life and career, or more specific things like the idea of a shared song between Thaisa and Pericles, and part of me gets a little territorial. Like, “Ok, Trev. Who have you been talking to?” I mean, I think there’s something inherent in the nature of the text which necessitates these choices, but I also think we’re all products of our time, and there’s a vaguely Jungian element of subconscious at play, meaning that it’s actually the world we live in which produces our interpretations of stories and our resulting notions of how best to share them.
Are there any themes in the play you’re hoping this production will highlight especially?
This play is such a sprawling piece of work, and as such it touches on a variety of themes, but if I had to pinpoint one I’d like people to walk away with, I think it’s hope. I want our production to be rousing. It’s funny and raucous (and a bit bawdy), but there are also moments of profound terror and heart-wrenching loss. Despite all odds however, things work out. Though this is potentially an idealized and perhaps too optimistic representation of life, we still have to find a reason to get up in the morning when things look bleak. The final act of “Pericles” provides us with an opportunity to suspend our cynicism and put our faith in the course having a happy ending, which I think we need sometimes. The play is certainly fantastical, but the most poignant magic lives in the promise of retribution, reunion and forgiveness. Isn’t that what we all want?
What has been your favourite scene to direct?
I thought it was going to be the reunion scene between father and daughter, because it’s arguably one of the biggest reasons to do this play at all, but I’ve actually found so much joy in working on the larger ensemble scenes. The triumph of the knights in Simonides’s court, for example, involves the entire ensemble and includes singing, dancing and fighting. These actors have shown impeccable physical commitment, and watching Taylor Sanderson punch himself in the face with a tankard can be my moment of bliss for the day. Similarly, when Thaisa and Pericles meet in the middle of the dance floor and sing riddles to each other, it sends chills up my spine.
Truly, though, this cast makes the production. My job is mostly to be an observer and commentator, because they’re so generous and thoughtful. I’m consistently impressed by the level of insight and dedication to play that they exhibit, which has shaped the whole show. The only thing we’re missing now is an audience for them to interact with, and I can’t wait to see what that brings to the mix!
Interview with Andrew Isherwood, Pericles.
Pericles is a little known character, what do you think of him?
Pericles is a good man who is always trying to do the right thing. He starts off the play in a very good place and quite content with who he is and his place in the world. But after a devastating discovery between Antiochus and his daughter, at the top of the play, events and circumstances take a turn for the worse. Pericles is a man who cares a great deal. Particularly about his subjects and what might happen to them should Antiochus choose to strike against his homeland and Tyre. It’s this dedication to duty and care of others that proves to be his undoing many times as he finds himself betrayed by those he thought he could trust after doing the right thing. It would seem that if Pericles ever had a tag line it would be: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
What are you hoping the new 18th-century setting will bring to the performance?
I think it was a clever idea of our director to take the name of the character the “Ancient Gower” and calling it the name of the pub! We have been building our “community characters” that we’ll be incorporating into the production so ALL of us are playing at least TWO characters at any one time! Whenever you stage a production you always have to find new creases and new folds that make it interesting for the audience and staging it in the 18th century gives scope to lend to that idea. The people that we’ve created would realistically live in this town that we’ve created, would spend all this time together in the pub and share stories with each other. It’s a neat idea and one I think the audience can relate to.
What should we be most excited for from this production?
This play is a great sprawling adventure story that takes us to many places filled with vast and diverse characters. I think the exciting thing for the audience is that they will get to feel a part of the story, given the pub setting, and that they will hopefully feel like they’ve come into this place which has a warm, comfortable atmosphere and that they know they will be treated to an epic story told between friends over a few drinks!
Pericles runs from Tuesday 19th April until Saturday 23rd April at the Upstage Youth Theatre in York. You can purchase tickets here.