Pericles begins Dominic Dromgoole’s farewell season of late Shakespeare’s in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – after two years of teeth-cutting with other Jacobean playwrights. It’s a gorgeous fit, the intimacy and candlelight bathing the resurrections and coincidences of the story in a magical glow, allowing us to embrace it like a fairy-tale.
Not that it isn’t a strange, changeable, tonally fractious sort of play – in part due to younger playwright George Wilkins writing the first two acts (so says the programme). Our hero, the storm-tossed, voyaging Pericles, cuts a tragic figure after seeming to lose first wife – dies in childbirth, thrown overboard – then daughter – jealous guardian tries to bump her off. But there’s much merriment too: not only a happy ending where wife and child are restored, but also chivalric contests, love-matches, kindly fishermen and helpful goddesses, as well as bawdier scenes featuring marauding pirates and brothel keepers. And then… there’s just some down-right weird shit: we start with an incest plot that’s never developed (nice…); Marina, Pericles’ daughter, is silently married off to a man who first tried to secure her services as a prostitute (nice!), and Pericles’ wife, Thaisa, is brought back from the dead by magic (is resurrection nice? Really?). For all its charming, dreamy reunions,Pericles – like its nearest cousin, The Winter’s Tale – can be a dark play.
But that’s why I like the late works: the swells of romance are as sharply salted as the sea-spray they’re lashed by. Managing such shifting tones is tricky, so it’s brilliant to see the SWP stage a whole season of them, especially lesser-done plays likePericles and Cymbeline. Dromgoole – unsurprisingly, given the rest of his work at the Globe – sways perhaps a little too far towards broad comedy here, but his embrace of the bonkers elements and tonal inconsistences is bright and brave.
Still, this venue can chill as much as it can chortle: early scenes are barely-lit by a few flickering tapers, creating real menace to match the incestuous father-daughter relationship. You start to notice how many times the words ‘dark’ and ‘black’ are used. Simon Armstrong starts as a glowering, twisted Antiochus – but morphs, in this frequently double-cast production, into an amusingly gleeful, practical joke-playing Simonidies, a ruler who, like Prospero with a sense of humour, puts Pericles through his paces before buoyantly agreeing to his marriage to his daughter Thaisa. That role is taken by Dorothea Myer-Bennett who continues to prove herself a truly fine Shakespearean actress: every word she speaks sounds fresh and modern while also totally, y’know, Shakespearean.
I was less convinced by James Garnon as Pericles – a scene-stealing regular at the Globe, he’s usually the most memorable thing in a production, and gloriously funny. So it’s funny-peculiar that here he doesn’t quite pull it off. Moments of high-drama risk becoming hammy; howls of grief sound more like squeals. There are some unfortunate sniggers at moments that strain to be moving, as well as when he throws us an intentionally comic bone. Plus a scene where he’s nearly crucified with some ship’s rigging is the one moment of really dire staging – elsewhere, storms are effectively evoked with a big, simple sail and swinging chandeliers, shifts in country nicely delineated with changes in colour scheme and lovely live music written by Claire van Kampen.
Also helping to whisk us across continents and down the years is the play’s narrator – like the chorus in Henry V, pleading with us wryly on the limits of theatre: “By you being pardon’d, we commit no crime/To use one language in each several clime.” In the play, the character is Gower, the real-life author of an earlier poem Pericles is based on (way intertextual, Will!). Here, it’s a tiny, twinkling old woman, played with light, shrugging sweetness by Sheila Reid.
Also impressive is Jessica Baglow as Marina – her simple, self-contained stoicism and grace actually convince that, having been sold to a brothel, she could make her customers come over all pious, weepily vowing never to visit “bawdy-houses” again. She’s a still centre in scenes I found otherwise over-played. Dromgoole, unable to resist going full-filth, casts the brothel-owners as cheeky, comedy Cockney miscreants; you lose the nastiness, and a sense of Marina’s remarkable fortitude, by playing so hard for laughs. Plus the physical lols of a man aggressively rubbing his crotch in Marina’s visibly distressed direction shortly before trying to force himself on her is basically a rape joke – we’re invited to laugh at the Cockney geez, not be troubled by him.
Elsewhere, however, I loved the batty energy Dromgoole brings: saucy dance routines, a rip-roaring jousting tournament which sees actors barrelling round behind our seats, the line-by-line snap between heartfelt emotion and knowing send-up. The production manages to be both exhilarating and beautiful – a very promising maiden journey for the season.
The Exeunt interview with James Garnon