Thomas Eccleshare
Soho Theatre

Thomas Eccleshare in Perle

An actor, a television set and a pile of video tapes are the apparent ingredients from which writer and performer Thomas Eccleshare creates a poignant and funny piece of theatre that uses them in an elegantly contrived combination.

It has its origin in a late fourteenth-century poem, one of the earliest known in English, probably from the same poet as the better-known romance of Gawain and the Green Knight.

The original, some 1,200 lines long, is full of lovely early English language, old words and alliteration that weave a particular magic. It is a tale of loss and religious reconciliation that in this modern version presents us with a depressed young man, off work, eyes glued to the image on the television screen, the white circle on the screen the “pearl of great price” that he has lost. The setting, a white disc on the floor and pearl-like globes lit around it, echo the pearl image.

What has he really lost? Although the actor’s action may echo the poet’s verse in revelling in the beauty of a nacreous pearl which he then loses, diving into a river after it, this is an analogy for something even dearer. What is he really watching as he loads yet another cassette? For what we see on the screen is not what he does, so painful to him that he often stops the tape. Then, when he is not watching it, it becomes his means of communication.

This man can’t manage speech. What would be all the oral elements of this script are merely mouthed. They appear as text and speech bubbles on the television screen.

As he at first makes contact, things are jokey. The style of the screen’s text and images (created by Serge Seidlitz) ensure throughout that there is an element of humour alongside and adding to the pathos. They often echo the original poem’s alliteration and archaic structure.

Images and actor’s body begin to form combinations, x-rays and limb continuations carefully positioned and timed. A real hand disappears into the box to become a graphic one to pick up a ’phone. A line of zs across the screen stems from a dozing head. Hands dive in to chop salad and prepare a sandwich.

Even as you admire the performer’s skill and are tickled by the form, Perle movingly unravels its story. Parts match the original quite closely, images seen are those the poet describes, but this carefully conceived and touchingly performed work needs no knowledge of its origins to be enjoyed and understood.

The quirky creativity of Eccleshare and his director Valentina Ceshi weaves a spell that carries the audience into an imaginative world that moves from monochrome melancholy into joyful colour before ending in the only way that is appropriate.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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