It is no exaggeration to say that Ben Crystal’s ensemble is ambitious to the point of recklessness. When invited by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra to stage a Shakespeare play at the Berwaldhallen concert hall to be accompanied by the world-renowned Trondheim Soloists, instead of performing a traditional production Ben and company chose Pericles– one of the most action-packed members of the canon- with less than 72-hours to rehearse. If this was not enough, they also performed using the Shakespearian traditions of Original Pronunciation (OP) and Practices- the stagecraft techniques of his time.
This may have proved too much for “normal actors” to take on, as musical director Daniel Harding quipped after the show, but Ben’s troupe are well-versed in the art of the impossible. Their Pericles married eloquent storytelling with graceful moments of physical theatre to create a symphony of voice and movement as powerful as that played by the accompanying orchestra.
Ben Crystal as Pericles. Picture Credit: Aslam Husain Photography
Bereft of props, costume, and scenery, the actors had to rely solely on their own dramatic resources to bring the story of the luckless Prince of Tyre to life. With every member of the ensemble doubling or even tripling up on the characters they played, the importance of distinguishing physicality and subtext for each was paramount and it is a testament to each actor’s ability that their diverse roles never blurred into one.
Crystal instilled a brash intensity to Younger Pericles, vividly bringing to life his roiling battle with the fates. The bravura moment came when he committed his supposed-dead wife to the sea, where Crystal’s mastery of verse interplayed delicately with a heartfelt violin solo by Daniel Hope, who walked onto the stage behind the grief-stricken prince to create a tableau of almost overwhelming power.
Natalie Tomas especially impressed in the polarising roles of Thaisa and Bawd. It takes an actor of unusual skill to convincingly depict a king’s daughter and a brothel owner’s wife in the same performance, yet Tomas’ almost preternatural ability to adapt posture, gait, and expression to suit each role made both believable.
However the standout performance was provided by Hilton McRae as Older Pericles. Tasked with orchestrating the play’s dramatic crescendo, McRae imbued his character with a deep and unspeakable sorrow that was heartrending to behold, but which made the final reunion with both Marina and Thaisa all the more joyful.
A special tribute must also be given to David Crystal, whose mastery of OP brought a rough but lyrical beauty to the verse of John Gower, Shakespeare’s ethereal narrator.
Members of the Crystal Ensemble (from left to right: Anirudh Nair, Solomon Mousely, Alex Boxall)
Picture Credit: Aslam Husain Photography
The Crystal Ensemble’s avowed purpose is to explore original ways of bringing Shakespeare to a modern audience. On paper, it is hard to understand how an under-rehearsed troupe minus props and costume and with cue-scripts in hand could do anything but alienate a public used to the glitz and polish of mainstream theatre. Yet there were moments of unparalleled beauty in this work. For example when the orchestra struck up Richter’s Spring and the ensemble part acted, part danced, Pericles’ shipwreck on the coast of Pentapolis the interplay of music and movement was enough to take the breath away.
Once again, Crystal and company demonstrated how to tell a Shakespearean story like no-one else. The Berwaldhallen, its audience, and this reviewer, are all richer for the experience.