This week, I saw Trevor Nunn’s much-anticipated production of Pericles at Theatre for a New Audience’s beautiful Brooklyn home, the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre. This is Nunn’s first foray into American-acted Shakespeare, and his first production of Pericles. Pericles is, at best, a challenging play to stage, with long speeches, dozens of characters, that drift in and out of the play, high melodrama, a variety of locations, and a deus ex-machina that tests the most devoted viewer’s belief. As a result, Pericles is often overlooked by theatre companies – this production is the first in a over a decade in New York City.
First and foremost, the production is stunning. The Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre’s thrust stage led up to a great portal in the back wall, that continuously adjusted to reframe the action, bathed in sumptuous colors, and frequently accented by the use of a silk sailcloth. The costumes, set in a vaguely fantastical vision of eastern cultures, enhanced the fairy-tale quality of the radically recut text. And the textual revisions paid off. The production’s rapid pace, underscored by the humor that characterized so many of the scenes, rendered the more fantastical elements of the play part of a larger mythical narrative, that Raphael Nash Thompson’s wonderful John Gower narrated to the audience, with a wink and a smile. The magic of this story was further enhanced by Shaun Davey’s sumptuous music, that lent the production a masque-like quality, making this Pericles hard to resist. On the night we attended, upon Thaisa’s resurrection, an audience member audibly gasped “oh my god!” which stands as a testament to the spell Nunn’s production cast.
There is however, a “but.” And it’s a big one. The play was cast along racial lines, and the result was that almost all of the corrupt characters – Antiochus and his daughter, Cleon’s daughter, the brothel-keepers – were played by actors of color (the exception being Boult, who was white and ostentatiously Irish). This was particularly startling, in contrast to Thaisa and Marina, who were beautiful blonde Disney princesses. One can only assume that this was an intentional contrast that the design team sought to create, particularly when it set Marina’s Sleeping Beauty-like pallor against the styling of Dionyza, Creon’s wife, who was evocative of twentieth-century representations of an evil stepmother, but I do not think that is adequate justification for the placement of almost all of the actors of color on the stage as visible embodiment of corruption. If, the play is read allegorically, as the epilogue was staged to suggest, then the association of blackness with corruption is deeply troubling, exploiting a very real problem in classical theatre today. Moreover, the fact that Nash Thompson is also an actor of color, disrupts the association of sin with blackness that Pericles asserts in his condemnation of Antiochus, and that may have served as inspiration, suggesting perhaps, a less intentional, and thoughtless wave at political correctness, or contract requirements. If such casting was accidental to the play’s overall design, then perhaps it is even more worthy of criticism. In the twenty-first century, much critical ink has been spilled on the subject of colorblind casting: Ayanna Thompson’s excellent Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance is ten years old already, yet Nunn’s production suggests little advancement in colorblind casting or using multiculturalism to advance insight into the text–it should also be noted that actors of color were also relegated in terms of class; filled many of the secondary roles, including Antiochus’ henchman, Thaliard, and Marina’s nurse, Lychorida. Pericles is a play that offers forgiveness to anyone who seeks grace, and to consistently represent the irredeemable characters through racially coded casting is at best irresponsible and culturally insensitive, asserting the inherent goodness of a whiteness that resists brutal experience and misfortune, which often occurs at the hands of the irretrievably fallen Other.
Other reviews I have read celebrate the production’ merits; I encourage you to read them. Indeed, Nunn’s production is a visual masterpiece; and yet the discomfort I felt watching the show has only increased with distance. In a recent blog post on multicultural stagings of Shakespearean drama, Alexa Huang suggested that actors of color offer an opportunity to explore “meaningful diversity.” In particular, she suggests that careful multi-cultural casting offers “a wider range of rich narratives about the human experience.” Pericles is a celebration of the endurance of human spirit, and one man’s deliverance from the misfortunes of a hostile world, but unfortunately, Nunn’s production redirected the source of hostility in a manner that cannot be ignored.