It’s a bit of a risk to rely almost solely on an old fat-backed TV to keep an audience sustained. Valentina Ceschi’s gamble just about pays off in this sweet and mellow retelling of the medieval poem Pearl.
Thomas Eccleshare plays a young father coming to terms with the loss of his love, Perle. Yet his grief is unspoken, his thoughts and feelings cannot be articulated to the outside world, and so we are forced to enter his subconscious, like some Freudian therapy session, represented by a TV, beaming out images and words through a scatter-gun approach, as pasts are visited and re-visited, presents are mulled upon, and futures are suggested but not explored.
It is brave to base a piece of work on a poem studied in university seminar rooms across the country, and yet choose not to speak. Ceschi’s production is proof that dialogue is not always necessary to get to the root of the human psyche. Emotions are flirted with, but Eccleshare remains neutral throughout. It’s enough to make you want to leap up and shake him, demand that he expresses his pain. The effect of this is to make the grief more haunting, more fascinating, more brutal. Just like in real life, there are brief respites in the sadness through daily routine, such as when Eccleshare displays pseudo-acrobatic skill in making a ham sandwich, but we are soon returned back to Eccleshare pining for his love lost.
Logistically, the lack of speech allows for easier audience participation, as members are pulled on stage and provided with on-screen speech and thought bubbles, articulating their views as succinctly as Eccleshare expresses his. This temporarily brings a warm and fuzzy feeling, which is then unceremoniously removed when they retake their seats, reminding the rest of us of Eccleshare’s absolute isolation.
Perle is a low-key and slow moving piece, but deliberately so. Indeed, this is where it gains its strength. The 2-D cartoon aesthetic, with Nick Sharratt-like illustration (google Jacqueline Wilson if you don’t know what I’m talking about) provides a vivid child-like quality, which makes the theme of loss all the more sad. “I lost her to the garden”, we read on screen, before this is replaced with a drawing of a grave on a mound of earth. This also means that any up in tempo is immediately noticeable; Eccleshare’s run through the country accompanied by a techno-synth beat is frankly mesmeric.
Likewise, when Eccleshare finally does speak, he displays the power of the spoken word, the power that the poem itself has held for hundreds of years. His speaking suggests a recovery process under way for the character, of new life and opportunities. At least I hope it does.
Perle is a poignant and relatable piece of theatre, and a piece which you can submerge yourself in.
Perle is on at the Soho Theatre until 3 November. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.