Exclusive: Natalie Abrahami on adapting Shakespeare’s Pericles

Published July 4, 2011

Natalie Abrahami talks exclusively to Official London Theatre about creating this year’s annual child-friendly Shakespeare production for the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre:

I always like a challenge and so the idea of re-imagining a lesser-known Shakespearean romance for everyone aged six and over is one that really appeals. Over the last three years the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre has mounted very popular re-imagined productions of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, so I was excited when Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of the venue, spoke to me about Pericles.

The brief is to create a production, re-imagined for everyone aged six or over, that has a contemporary prologue and runs at under two hours. The show is to be performed by a cast of six and takes place during the day on the set of the evening show – in this case The Beggar’s Opera.

This sort of directorial challenge is brilliant because having really clear parameters actively informs and shapes the whole process. Pericles is also such an apt play to re-imagine in this way because as one of Shakespeare’s romances, it has its own fabular quality in terms of families being separated and reunited. This idea of questing and nautical adventure is something we are focussing on in our production.

Purportedly co-written by George Wilkins (a brothel owner) and William Shakespeare, the play has a couple of notable characteristics. Namely it is very episodic, docking at various classical sites in the Mediterranean, and it also has a narrator – the 14th century poet John Gower – who acts as a chorus summarising each stage in the action and filling in any gaps. 

For those who have some prior knowledge of Pericles, the question of how one presents a play that has over 50 characters listed is raised. Suffice to say that this has been part of the fun of re-imagining it and, without giving too much away, we have found a way to navigate these waters with a cast of six versatile performers, which remains true to the spirit of the play.

In an outdoor performance space where the audience is as visible as the actors, audience engagement is key and this is introduced through the contemporary prologue. We decided to assign the prologue to the youngest character in the play meaning that there is also a younger heroine from whose perspective the action can be seen. So Marina, Pericles’s daughter, comes out and introduces herself and her story at the beginning.

After introducing the teenage Marina, our narrator then takes us back to the storm in which Marina was born. This also happens to be the point in the play at which Shakespeare is thought to have taken more fulsome responsibility for the writing and enables us to keep our production at under two hours including interval.

Shakespeare has Gower narrate because Gower’s poem Confessio Amantis provides some of the source material for the play. However, in keeping with the fairy tale feel, we have transformed Gower into Goddess Diana, a fairy godmother like figure who stewards the action from her lighthouse perch and makes sure no harm comes to Marina while she and her father quest to find one another.

The set for The Beggar’s Opera comprises three, five-metre high wooden beams which form the Tyburn gallows and, as these are set into the floor of the stage, we have incorporated them into our design. Goddess Diana’s lighthouse encases one, another is used as a ship’s mast, while the third becomes a sign-post at the end of a pier.

As the play takes place on the open sea and at various coastal cities, we are imagining the audience as the sea and so Marina addresses them as ‘the fish of the sea’. Everyone will be given a piece of paper which has instructions of how to make an origami fish or boat which they can then use to create the movement of the sea every time the word ‘sea’ is mentioned in the play.

A highlight of our first week of rehearsals was the ten-year-old daughter of one of our cast members coming in to test our origami prototypes and now we cannot wait to put our show before a whole shoal of interactive fish.

– Natalie Abrahami

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