The Pitfalls of Pericles

The tournament in this summer’s production of  Pericles may be the most complicated choreography we’ve done in our years of choreographing fights for Ithaca Shakespeare Company. While the text doesn’t even require the tournament to take place on stage, Director Steve Ponton always loves to give the audience a good fight, and we’re happy to oblige. For better or for worse, my usual approach of doing a close reading of the text for indications of what should happen doesn’t add much here. Other than that Pericles is himself somewhat more shabbily attired than his fellow combatants, there is no indication of either the weapons used or the events that take place during the tournament. We know who wins at the end, but unlike other featured fights that have dialogue either before or after in which characters describe the events that they witnessed, Pericles is completely silent, even as to the terms and style of tournament that takes place. We’ve chosen to present a single-elimination, single combat tournament with fights ending upon submission in order to establish the individual skill (rather than luck) of the combatants, to focus the audience’s attention on each of the pivotal moments without the distractions of mass combat.

Additionally, since most of the fighters are not named (other than by their origin) and do not have significant parts in the rest of the play, the combat does not need to establish character attributes of honor or villainy. No fighter has a particular emotional stake in the combat that exceeds the others, or is fighting for a different cause: each is there to win personal and national glory, and earn their fortune. Since each region is a part of the dissolved empire of Alexander the Great, even the combative styles available to them would be fairly similar.

Given how little differentiates each of these combatants, in order to make the fights as engaging as possible, we’ve chosen to represent the characters through the weapons that they employ. These are loosely based on the varied gladiatorial weapons combinations from later Roman combat, but adapted to parallel Hellenistic military weaponry better (since these are high-status entrants and not slaves or prisoners). The fighter from Antioch will use two short swords, the fighter from Macedon uses a spear, our Spartan fights with sword and shield, while Pericles makes use of a single, larger sword. This range of different combinations allows us to get a glimpse of the different fighters’ personalities even in the absence of dialogue or other plot points that would flesh out the characters.

At the same time, both for a choreographer and the actors, mismatched weapons are a challenge. If two fighters are using the same type of weapon, they can spend most of their time at a fairly consistent distance, and it’s relatively easy for them to match each other’s speeds, as the weapons themselves have similar physical properties. Other things being equal, however, a shorter or lighter weapon will be faster than a longer or heavier one; this requires our performers to continuously adjust their distance and each learn a slightly different movement style. Fortunately, we have four talented performers and Ithaca Shakespeare lets us start training them from the very beginning of rehearsals, so that we can safely take on these challenges and present this tournament in what we hope will be a unique and thrilling way.

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