TAITMAIL When Shakespeare isn’t about language anymore, it speaks to the 21st century
Practically every Shakespeare production these days seems to be an attempt to make the text relevant to us, from playing it in modern dress to the RSC’s famous “Reggae Hamlet” in 2016 with Paapa Essiedu.
But The Faction, the award-winning ensemble that has made experiment and physicality its double hallmark, has taken it further, with a Shakespeare play that was probably only half written by Shakespeare and which is rarely produced because of its huge cast and far-ranging locations and, frankly, few quotable lines.
Now, with the boldest of flourishes, the play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, about a mythical monarch exiled from his realm by the machinations of a corrupt regime, has become Pericles, an International Odyssey, and becomes more about the current crises in national identity, place, asylum and morality than a fabled princeling.
Shakespeare has been produced in most of the world’s languages but this production is performed in five, a first. It had a week’s research and development workshop at the Barbican’s Pit last week.
The project is the brainchild of The Faction’s artistic director Mark Leipacher (fifth from left in my picture) and his wife, the director Rachel Valentine Smith (of Clean Break, third from left). It’s a follow-up from a 2016 production of King Lear in Lebanon, directed in Lebanese in an amphitheatre by Smith with the leading Lebanese actor Fouad Yammine in the title role, the first time most Lebanese had heard of Lear let alone seen it performed.
And they realised that Tyre, Pericles’s principality, is in modern day Lebanon.
Their new concept has taken seven years to bring to a research and development workshop. Fouad (fourth from right) was cast as Pericles. “What’s exciting about Pericles, though, is that it’s also set in Greece, Libya, Turkey and Syria, and there’s an English character as well” Leipacher said. “It’s not a terrific leap to say that the leading character should be played by a Lebanese actor, and then that all the others would be played by people in their own nationality, a trans-national and multi-lingual Pericles.”
The play is thought to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and a pamphleteer-come-playwright called George Wilkins who may have been responsible for the first two acts of the five-act piece, and it was Wilkins who introduced the 14th century poet John Gower as the chorus, played here by one of only two British actors. It was first performed in about 1609 at the end of Shakespeare’s writing career, and though Ben Jonson disapproved of it, it was produced intermittently in the first half of the 17th century. Then it fell out of fashion until the mid-20th century – partly because of the incest and brothel scenes in the last act which had become offensive to prevailing mores - when T S Eliot championed it, particularly for its second half.
The read-through took place at the Pit on Friday, after four days of workshopping, with the cast of 12 - half the number of dramatis personae in the original in which some ingenious casting has the villainous Antiochus and his daughter with whom he has an incestuous relationship played by the same female actor. The play is helpfully episodic, taking place in five locations around the Mediterrenean, so actors from each of the countries, now living and working in the UK (except for Fouad, who came from Beirut through a visa snowstorm for the read-through) were brought together and separated into their national groups to work up their parts of the text, under the overall direction of Smith. Each of the five elements has been translated by scholars in the appropriate place, and in each location the indigenous language is what is spoken, each unit directed by a director of the appropriate nationality. Most if not all had never met before but, said Leipacher, they fell into step immediately.
Reduced to a little more than an hour before a small invited audience, at first the language-switching was difficult, but it quickly became clear that there was another transcendent language at play: the language of passion. The gestural physicality of the actors – and at 37 Fouad was the oldest – gave a remarkable authenticity to the idea that, in a part of the world where myth is a vital element of the culture, this play speaks multi-lingually to today.
Pericles’s faithful friend and adviser, Helicanus, was played by Agatha Ezzedine who came to Britain from Lebanon in 2013 and is now based in London where she completed her training. She’s eighth from the left. Ezzedine has a growing reputation as a film actor after appearing in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin for Disney in 2019, but didn’t hesitate when contacted by Smith, drawn to the idea of doing Shakespeare in Arabic and her own heritage. She was born in Beirut but lived much of her early life in the small coastal city of Tyre in southern Lebanon.
“I spent most of my childhood’s summers on the beaches and streets of Tyre, and those memories shaped me greatly” she says. “So, for example, when Pericles delivers his soliloquy about protecting Tyre and saving its people from Antiochus’s harm, it resonates with me on a deeper level, which highlights even more to me the importance of my character’s advice to Pericles (that he must leave town immediately to save the innocent people of Tyre from a bloody war)”.
Pericles, remember, is Lebanese; Antiochus is Syrian. “Definitely, the current political turmoil in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and the Middle East in general was an interesting parallel to Pericles’s story, especially against Antiochus’s corruption” said Ezzedine.
Some of the cast, Leipacher says, had been refugees but the question was never asked of them. The cast were only confirmed a few days before the Barbican week, but they were given the English text, both modern and classical, and in their Arabic language, modern and classical. “An amazing project” said Fouad as he dashed from the Pit on his way back to Beirut and his family. “We learn so much by working together in this way, you can’t help but buy into the project”.
For Ezzedine playing Helicanus has been an exciting experience, especially due to the Smith's choice to cast the role as female. “It was empowering having the role of the wise political advisor being played by a female”. She found Shakespeare’s characters’ stakes “high and clear”, allowing her to bring a lot of passion to her role, the passion that comes so easily in the Middle Eastern psyche. “We were able to work together straight away, though most of us were complete strangers. We know we have to go together along this road” she said.
What next? Leipacher says a second R&D week is needed for which he hopes to raise full funding, but there is already a buzz about it. Stella Kanu, artistic director of the London International Festival of Theatre and soon-to-be CEO of Shakespeare’s Globe, was at the performance.
“I thought it was an extraordinary feat” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. The trans-national framework is ambitious – language takes on a whole new meaning.”