“It felt like home”: Live Shakespearian Theatre returns to St John’s

September 2021

by Robert Ormsby

Live Shakespeare performance returned to St John’s this summer with Shakespeare By The Sea’s (SBTS) staging of Pericles at the Fortis Courtyard Amphitheatre outside The Rooms. Director Paul Rowe says of in-person performance this year, “Being live felt like home.” While SBTS General Manager Sandra Mills acknowledges the stress of ensuring everyone’s safety – especially given the great demand for tickets this summer – she concurs that “there is nothing like live theatre.”

While not the most frequently staged play in the Shakespeare repertoire, Pericles, likely co-authored with George Wilkins, was immensely popular in the early 1600s. This sprawling drama, which is difficult to pigeonhole generically, is full of adventure, death, sexual waywardness, comedy, and political commentary. Pericles follows the title character, the prince of Tyre, as he journeys around the ancient Mediterranean. The focus switches partway through the action to dramatize the travails of Pericles’ daughter, Marina. It is fortunate that a community theatre such as SBTS is willing to take a chance on this lesser-known play, which can still please 21st-century crowds.

In fact, SBTS has produced Pericles twice: it went online last year; for this show, they commissioned an adapted script from veteran actor-playwright Andy Jones (full disclosure: I previously worked with several SBTS members on a community-outreach project). Rowe relates that Jones was commissioned to rewrite the lines of the chorus figure, medieval poet John Gower, “in an idiom that would be recognizable to the Newfoundland ear” and “to amplify the folktale elements of the original piece.” Jones evidently had SBST’s local and varied audience in mind when reworking a script that was itself incomplete when first printed. He kept most of the characters, including Gower (played on alternate days by Jones and Rowe). However, in fulfilling his commission, he also cut some of the play’s unsavoury sexual material, often used in other productions of Pericles to generate antipathy and ugly humour.

In nearly three decades of performance, SBTS has worked in some wide-open spaces, and this amphitheatre is no exception. The Rooms provided the main backdrop to the action, though the Basilica and parts of east-end St John’s were also on display throughout. In this uncovered area, both actors and spectators were susceptible to the elements; in fact, the company had to cancel three shows due to high winds and/or rain. As Mills comments of this space, “lesson learned for next time!”

Still, the large cast easily handled the challenge of projecting their lines to a widely dispersed audience. Jones stood out as Gower, guiding us with genial comedy through the often confusing action. Chris Hibbs was an appealing, magnetic Pericles who always held theatregoers’ attention. He was fortunate to be paired with Karin Murray-Bergquist, who gave a strong performance as his wife Thaisa. Bailey Jackson commendably avoided making Marina’s unwavering goodness cloying so that her reunion with Hibbs’ Pericles was quite moving. If Megan Jones got the most one could out of the relatively small role of Cerimon, the life-restoring physician, Spencer Bellows managed to make credible the redemption of Lysimachus, a sleazy politician.

Rowe ably directed these and the ten other cast members, using the open space to create plenty of self-consciously theatrical moments. Actors were always visible, moving between the upstage area, where they sat when not acting, and the downstage area to perform. Wearing what looked like early 20th-century Newfoundland garb (flat caps, shirtsleeves, braces, trousers, plain dresses, and headscarves), many actors played multiple roles with a refreshing lack of concern for verisimilitude. They credibly fleshed out the play’s many locales and occasionally provided diverting musical interludes. In one especially fine piece of stage business, several performers turned bits of rope, canvas, and a pole into Pericles’ ship. It was a pleasure to watch the actors playing with these humble materials as they ostentatiously played at bringing the scene to life.

SBTS’s 2021 season featured two other shows: Kelly Russell was back with live Newfoundland music and stories in Tunes and Tales; and the company mounted an online experimental performance based on Richard III: Depths of Desire, directed by Desirée Leverenz.

Still, it was Pericles that represented a return to the sort of accessible make-do-with-what’s-at-hand Shakespeare that SBTS has always offered its audiences. The production was a significant part of the comeback live performance has been making in the province in the latter half of 2021, and it was a sign that some part of the old “normal” that everyone had been clamouring for had begun to make an appearance.

Robert Ormsby is Associate Professor of English at MUN, whose research interests include Shakespeare in Performance. His assessment of Perchance Theatre’s Hamlet will appear next week.

Photos: Ashely Hartling

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