by William Shakespeare & George Wilkins
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Designed by Jonathan Fensom
Music by Claire Van Kampen
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
at Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Sunday 22nd November 2015, 14.00
(In fact, most took four or five roles – only principal ones listed)
- Antiochus, king of Antioch /Simonides, king of Pentapolis
Jessica Baglow – Marina, daughter of Pericles and Thaissa
Tia Bannon - Daughter
Sam Cox - Escanes, a lord of Tyre /Cerimon, a lord of Ephesus
Steffan Donnelly - Lysimachus, Governor of Mytilene
James Garnon – Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Dennis Herdman – Bolt, the Pandar’s servant
Tom Kanji - Thaliart, a lord of Antioch
Fergal McElherron - Helicanus, a lord of Tyre /Pandar (male brothel keeper)
Ryan McKen - Leonine
Dorothea Myer-Bennett - Thaisa, daughter of Simonides, wife of Pericles / Dionyza, wife of Cleon
Daniel Rabin - Cleon, Governor of Tarsus
Sheila Reid - Gower, medieval poet and chorus
Kirsty Woodward - Bawd (female brothel keeper) /Lychorida, nurse to Marina
Wanamaker Playhouse exterior on a crisp Sunday morning
I’d never seen it before. The corrupt quarto dates from 1609, and only this imperfect text has survived. Computer analysis suggest that Shakespeare’s contribution is the second half, with the beginning written by George Wilkins, described by Wiki as “victualler, panderer, dramatist and pamphleteer.” Some suggest collaboration, others rather that Wilkins’ prose version of the story was perhaps based on missing text of the play. This is the start of the third season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modeled on the Blackfriars indoor theatre, and so far they have avoided Shakespeare deliberately, wanting to get used to the space first. This season four related Shakespeare plays finally get on that stage … Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest; so a lot of storms at sea and a great deal of father-daughter stuff. They’re starting with Pericles so not “totally Shakespeare” yet.
I’ve been gradually replacing my single-play editions (mainly Signet) with the RSC / Macmillan editions whenever I see a new one. I buy them for the performance history. The RSC is the one edition the Globe shop doesn’t sell. For Pericles I got the older Penguin / RSC edition and was taken with the introduction, especially the concept that the play deliberately mimics or pastiches earlier styles … going back to the mimes and tableaux of the Mystery Cycles perhaps. In other words, NARRATIVE and EVENTS take priority over CHARACTER.
We were delighted to see James Garnon taking the lead, after so many appearances in “the main four or five parts but not the lead or title role.” Even when being serious, he can give fresh weighting and perfect timing to a line and draw a major laugh.
It begins and ends (as did Love for Love at the RSC this month) with the cast in simple trousers and white shirts, or white modern frocks. In between it’s costumed with an eclectic mix of Classical Greek and much later Turkish or Middle-Eastern.
Sheila Reid (narrator)
The play uses a narrator as a link throughout, supposedly the medieval poet Gower, here played by the tiny Sheila Reid, and I hope she’ll excuse the inevitable mention that she was the belligerent, feisty wheelchair-bound grandma through seven series of the sitcom Benidorm. Don’t get snooty about Benidorm … Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and James Cordern (all reviewed in the theatre on this blog) were in it too.
You can feel the joins between the Wilkins and Shakespeare. We both found the first half an hour (Wilkins) frankly somewhat tedious, and that was exacerbated, I think, by choosing to do the whole Antioch sequence with the candelabra blown out, and only hand held candles lighting the faces. It looked so great at the start, but because you can’t see that much and the text is not fantastic, the mind drifts. The Antioch section is where Pericles has to solve a riddle to be a suitor for the king’s daughter, and works out that Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Antiochus knows that Pericles knows, and dispatches an assassin to deal with him.
Pericles with sailors
We move on to Pericles rescuing Tarsus from famine with a boatload of food. Dorothea Myer-Bennett was so good at doubling the evil Dionyza, the wife of Cleon of Tarsus, and later Thaissa that it was only reading the cast list later that I realized she was both. I should have guessed from her ability to give such fresh and interesting weighting to every line she has.
Off Pericles sails to Pentapolis, where he is shipwrecked. Shakespeare didn’t have an editor to say, “Hey, you’ve done this before!” but the only answer would be “And I’m going to do it again. See, I’ve got this idea about a tempest … ” Pericles is rescued by fishermen who also dredge up his armour. He goes off to join a tournament in honour of King Simonides daughter, Thaissa, and suddenly with the tournament scene, the play starts to lift off. The Wanamaker has done it before, but the tournament was a glorious chase around the outside glimpsed through the windows (I doubt you’d see much from upstairs … but it was right by us and superb.)
After a splendid stylized dance by the men … a soldier’s dance … then another by the women, a seductive dance, Simonides’ initial doubts about Pericles dispels and he pushes them together. Simon Armstrong as Simonides does this with glee … a great role … as of course are James Garnon as Pericles with Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Thaissa. Ah, this is getting much much better.
Pericles (James Garnon) stuck in the rigging
Two years pass … as Gower tells us. Thaissa is pregnant and they set off by sea back to Tyre. A large sail appears and a plank with ropes appears at the front of the stage. The storm at sea is staged extremely well, especially given the confines of the Wanamaker. The four brilliant musicians do it all live … no recorded sound effects … with thunder sheets and percussion. The music is by Claire Van Kampen. Thaissa gives birth but apparently dies in childbirth. The superstitious crew insist that the dead body is put overboard, leaving Pericles with infant neonate, Marina. He decides to take the baby to Tarsus, and have Cleon and Dionzya foster her.
As luck would have it, they put Thaissa’s body in a sealed sea chest as a coffin and that sea chest gets washed up on the coast of Ephesus where she is revived by the medical skills of Cerimon. She nips off to become a priestess of Diana.
We have an interval, and Gower tells us that fourteen years have passed. Poor Pericles is now in heavy wig and beard and rags, not having cut his hair since Thaissa died. He might not have had a bath either. Dionzya has grown jealous of Marina’s virginal perfection and decides to have her murdered. The murderer is stayed by the arrival of pirates who kidnap her. Is their comic accent Rumanian? It’s very funny. There are two main pirates, but in their initial raid several others have to join in.
We cut to a brothel in Mytilene (the modern Isle of Lesbos) for the very best scene on the play. The pirates have sold Marina to a brothel, as being a virgin she will command a high price. The brothel keepers are Kirsty Woodward who is very tall, and Fergal McElherron who is very short (though he towers over Sheila Reid’s Gower) and they’re assisted by Bolt. Good physical casting. They’re a first-rate hilarious triple act with a lot of added lines and asides and business. Estuary accents work. Exotic costumes look good too. The virginal Marina fights off all advances, including those of the governor of Mytilene, Lysimachus, who repents of his naughty deeds on meeting her. The brothel keepers give up on selling her body (she just won’t), and decide to rent her out as a singing and embroidery teacher instead.
Pericles (James Garnon) is reunited with Marina (Jessica Baglow)
This is where the travelling Pericles runs into her. He is mortally ill, and she’s employed to sing to him. They get chatting and realize they are father and daughter. The “revelation” scene where they work this all out is very long (and beautifully executed too). Perhaps it’s why Shakespeare skipped over the revelation in The Winter’s Tale a couple of years later … been there, done that.
Anyway, the Goddess Diana has descended from the roof to help Pericles, so they troop off to thank Diana at her temple in Ephesus, meet Thaissa, her votary, and live happily ever after.
For the curtain calls, everyone’s back in plain white clothes … fittingly as each actor played so many different parts … I’ve still no idea who the pirates were. The Wanamaker hasn’t got the space on stage for Globe-sized casts, and economics must come into play … it’s a small theatre. The audience weren’t quite sure of the end point, as it went into a dance without any demarcation line. The curtain call section is fun, but really needs clarifying and signposting so we’re sure when to applaud and when to clap along, then applaud again. We were sure that it was the director, Dominic Dromgoole, watching from the back row downstairs, just a few days in, so maybe that will all be tightened.
The play has such modern parallels … Tyre is in Lebanon, Antioch and Tarsus are on the coast of Turkey. Antioch is “round the corner” on the west-facing coast of the Mediterranean, like Syria and Lebanon. It’s just 12 miles from Syria. Pentapolis was in Cyrenica, on the Libyan coast, then Mytilene is on the Island of Lesbos. People coming from the Lebanese coast so near to Syria, wandering the Mediterranean, leaving Libya, landing on the coast of Turkey, then getting to Lesbos, with shipwrecks and bodies washed up on the shore. People traffickers (the pirates) and sex slaves. I think it is to Mr Dromgoole’s credit that he let the play of Pericles speak for itself without hammering in any modern parallels … best leave that heavy-handed angle to the Young Vic or Trafalgar Studio! I will be surprised if someone doesn’t pick up on those locations and shoehorn a concept into it.
The play does have an intrinsic problem with the early text not being at the same level as the later text, but there are scenes, especially the brothel scene here, of such massive comic and dramatic potential. You can see why it was one of the most popular plays of its own era, and the very first Shakespeare played after the Restoration of the Monarchy.
The Globe has so much going for it on a day like today … excellent Sunday lunch in the restaurant, a “perfect programme” to read, and a given is the quality of acting and direction. Claire Van Kampen has cornered the field of accompanying music for classic English drama too. It’s always just right, never intrusive.
A footnote: JOHN GOWER
The tomb of John Gower, Southwark Cathedral
Shakespeare chose John Gower to be his narrator. A couple of weeks after seeing Pericles we were in Borough Market and it started raining and we had a long wait before seeing Macbeth at The Young Vic. We decided to take a look inside Southwark Cathedral, which boasts that Gower, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Massinger, Fletcher and Charles Dickens were among its congregation. It was the nearest church to The Globe, and Edmond Shakespeare, William’s brother was buried there in 1607 … the year Pericles was written. We were taken by the fine carving on a tomb on the side wall: John Gower, 1330-1408, poet laureate to Richard II and Henry IV who unusually for his era, wrote in English. An original medieval tomb which was there when Shakespeare was … church attendance was compulsory and we’d assume that Shakespeare at least attended his brother’s funeral. A thought struck me … I could imagine William sitting in a pew, his mind flitting between the service and his latest work in progress … A glance to the left. The very fine tomb of John Gower. Gower … Richard II and Henry IV are mentioned on the tomb … done those already. Inspiration! Gower can be the narrator / chorus of Pericles …
State-of-the-art as ever.
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