Why The Pearl?

July 8th, 20132:16 pm @


In the first of a series of blog posts from Dumbshow members about our new production for Edinburgh 2013, artistic director Michael Bryher starts at the very beginning by explaining what ignited his interest in making The Pearl….

A pearl is made when an oyster gets the equivalent of a splinter. A bit of grit finds its way into an oyster shell, and in order to protect itself the oyster coats the speck of sand with the same substance that the shell itself is made of; this is called nacre. As layer upon layer of nacre is applied to the grain of rock, it grows bigger and bigger, thus increasing the irritation and causing more coats to be applied, until finally what we know as “a pearl” is produced.

I didn’t know that this was how a pearl was made until after we had decided to adapt John Steinbeck’s little-known novella for the stage, but in retrospect, this process has metaphorical parallels to Dumbshow’s theatre making process.

In the past we have described the way we approach choosing a story to tell as an “itch that needed to be scratched”. This is actually a line taken from our first play “To The End of The World”, but it seems to accurately capture the feeling we get when we embark on making a new piece of work, and it is a phrase we have often returned to when we are asked to talk about our work.

When The Pearl was brought to the company as a possible subject matter for adaptation, with its themes of love and loss, greed and redemption, it quickly became that itch, that splinter – that grain of sand – it lodged inside us, and after two years we have now made The Pearl. Whether it proves to be a pearl – perfectly formed and worthy of great attention – will be up to you to decide, but we have now layered our own form of nacre onto the story and are ready to display it.

But a pearl cannot be made without some kind of irritation and equally we cannot make theatre unless the story involves something troubling or challenging, something that we can’t resolve – so what was it that got us going? In this instance, it is the question of what we value most in a capitalist society.

Our protagonist, Kino, finds a pearl that promises him great wealth but he is denied the opportunity of cashing-in by a world which excludes those not born into privilege. This leads Kino to challenge the rules and social norms of his community, leading him down a path towards tragedy.

The impending tragedy looms over Kino from the moment he finds the pearl, and dramatic irony encourages us to challenge his actions – why did you pursue a course which would ultimately lead to dangerous situations? Why challenge whole social systems which are loaded against you?

Well, maybe because I can be a truculent fellow at times, my response is WHY NOT? Why shouldn’t he be given what he is owed? We are encouraged to believe that if we strive hard enough, or are just plain lucky enough, we can achieve untold riches. So is this a lie? And if so, why don’t we rise up together to change things? (And anyway, in a good story the hero always has to attempt to reach well beyond himself.)

So The Pearl offers an expose of capitalist societies which promise the world, but shut out those not privileged enough to be part of the elite. But it also simply shows us a man and his wife, and asks us to think about what we would do in their situation. Would we have foresight, sit back and accept our lot? Or would we too strive to pursue what is right (and rightfully ours)?

In a way, the pearl in the story became the bit of grit that lodged in our imaginations. What would you do if you found a pearl – even after everything you know happens to Kino? Would you act differently?  After you have seen the piece, you may find these questions easy to answer, but I don’t. I still don’t know what I would do, and it is this splinter of doubt which keeps me interested in Steinbeck’s tricky, knotty beautiful tale.