November 30, 2014

January 18, 2015

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by David H. Bell

Q&A with the Director

David, what draws you to this play, which is among Shakespeare’s least familiar works?

Pericles Pericles begins Shakespeare’s last four great plays, called the Romances. I’ve always admired the degree to which comedy and tragedy coexist in Shakespeare, but in his late plays the line also becomes blurred between what is real and not real. The parade of coincidences that brings closure to Cymbeline, the statue that comes to life in The Winter’s Tale, Prospero’s magic in The Tempest and the panoply of miracles in Pericles—all of it is illogical.

Shakespeare is making a transition to the spiritual. Each ends in redemption, when those things that you have done wrong and regret can be expunged. The power of redemption is, to me, the greatest gift that a human being can give to another. To forgive. And I find it in the very fabric of this tale. In the journey of living can come an incredible grace—a grace that comes from weathering horrible disappointments and tragedies, mixed with miraculous friendships, loves, and trust. Ultimately, if you tell the story well, I believe that the end is so redemptive that meaning is cast on everything that precedes it.

It’s interesting that during his lifetime and for several decades afterwards, Pericles was Shakespeare’s biggest hit. At the end of his career, this was the equivalent of Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream to us. It has since been diminished, and scholars attribute a greater or lesser portion to other writers. To me, Pericles does represent a collaboration—but not just one with a contemporary playwright. As in As You Like It, where Shakespeare takes the outdated dramatic form of a pastoral and turns it into something never seen before, I think with Pericles he takes an antiquated theatrical form and turns it into the depiction of a man’s journey through life. You see Shakespeare collaborating here with this older form of allegory, transforming archetype into the voice of human characters.

Can you talk more about allegory and how you see Shakespeare experimenting with it in Pericles?

Essentially, Pericles is a story of a man’s life and of learning the lessons of his life as he’s living it. He has to learn what it means to be a lover, to be disappointed in love, to be a fugitive, to be a hero, to be a leader, to be a husband—and then lose your wife, lose your daughter, and everything. Then, in an act of miraculous redemption, all those things that were lost are returned to him in a final scene of restoration.

While it resembles the form of an allegory, it takes on instead the form of Shakespeare’s storytelling. He takes this old form that existed in his youth, and reworks it in a way all his own. I understand that it lacks the complexity that, earlier in Shakespeare’s career, would create a character as interesting as Hamlet. But what it does have is an organizational complexity that I think only becomes available to someone who has already mastered the art of storytelling. It is a complex and mature play, told simply. Don’t mistake the complexity of what Shakespeare’s trying to do for the language in which he expresses it.

Pericles is often characterized as an elaborate “travelogue.”

Like the Odyssey, the story of Pericles is about going to mythic places. There is an epic sweep to the architecture of this story that I find very moving. There’s something Homeric about this journey, taking place in the Bronze Age of heroes. The locations move from northern Africa, sweep all around the Mediterranean Adriatic Sea and include places that evoke ancient Greece and Babylon. In each, it is important that we see a population and a place that not only look different, but are established to provide our hero with a different lesson he has to learn along each step in his journey. As in all mythology, the story is based upon a sense of wonder and miracle.

Why do you think that Shakespeare uses a narrator to tell this story?

With Gower as narrator, Shakespeare is drawing upon a more antiquated verse form. He is channeling something much older: storytellers around the campfire, or the first time you ever heard a story told at your mother’s or your father’s knee. I wanted the narrative to be possessed of a theatrical character that is indelible and unique to this production; instead of making the storyteller a single person, the entire company takes on Gower’s part—a company of players gathered for the purpose of telling this story to us. From the opening moments, I want the audience to feel like they are sitting around the campfire, imagining a story. There will be moments when we strip everything back to the simple elements of storytelling to emphasize that we are here as storytellers, with the audience as an active, imaginative participant in that process.

At the vortex of this epic story, how have you come to understand its central character?

Pericles is a kind of “action hero” that you know nothing about; we see the action but we don’t fully understand the motivations. That’s the element that makes some think the play is underwritten. But I think that’s the point: it’s an allegory. I see Pericles as an Everyman to Shakespeare. You see a man who is learning life’s lessons and is riding the wave, as most of us do. We are watching a generic journey through life; it is not only Pericles in his youth, but about all of us in our youths and the lessons we must learn. You see a man go through the chapters of his life: first, about acquisition and subsequently, about loss. He loses everything, including his sanity. Then comes this incredible act of redemption when he is reunited with his daughter—to me one of the most exquisite scenes in all of Shakespeare. It’s the moment that happens in all four of his late Romance plays: a moment of transcendence, of forgiveness and restoration. That, to me, is the most fulfilling experience in the theater. The end transcends theater. It becomes church; it is spiritual.

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