SOMETHING RICH AND STRANGE…
Another flickering evening in the candlelight of the Globe’s Jacobean theatre: engrossing, melodramatic, comic, epic. Ben Jonson was disparaging about Pericles – c “a mouldy tale” . And even compared to A Winter’s Tale with its “gap of time” in the interval, this is diffuse and episodic. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, ricochets round the ancient Mediterranean and Aegean between kingdoms: fleeing for his life from the incestuous riddling Antiochus, saving a land from famine, being shipwrecked, finding his armour washed up and winning a fight , marrying Thaisa, losing her in childbirth in a storm at sea, casting her coffin adrift, enduring his daughter’s apparent death while he sails home to duty, roaming long years in his grief, growing his hair till he resembles Ben Gunn.
Meanwhile the wife’s and daughter’s fates in nunnery and brothel must be related too, plus the treachery of trusted friends and some random necessary pirates. Then the three must be reunited, with slight assistance from the Goddess Diana descending from the roof in a dream sequence. To keep the audience on-track it has a narrator, speaking as the medieval poet Gower. Add to that the fact that Shakespeare pretty certainly didn’t write the first eight or nine scenes (his colleague George Wilkins is mainly responsible for those, and indeed the early verse does rather plod along in comparison with later glories) . And all this adventure, rom-com, tragedy, romance and redemption must fit in tiny theatre required to be many shores and seas.
But Dominic Dromgoole’s production has wit, pace and beauty. Three hours fly past in suspense and not infrequent interludes of laughter. There is perfect atmospheric music by Clare van Kampen and a surprising degree of spectacle. Dromgoole – and designer Jonathan Fensom – positively relish the Jacobean challenge of sails, ratlines and ropes descending amid the flickering candelabras, thunder-effects, an altar fire and portable tree, and the creation of an instant brothel with rude picture and naff bead curtains. The Gower narration is, brilliantly, given to Sheila Reid as a diminutive crone, relishing the ancient story as if at a fireside, wandering in and out excited at each new development, scuttling out of the cast’s way to let them do a scene. And the offstage joust, startlingly, happens behind us in the circular corridor as the shutters fly suddenly open to the light.
James Garnon is Pericles, journeying from boyishness to manhood and on to Lear-like despair; Jessica Baglow a dignified, soberly virtuous pragmatic Marina: her scenes with her would-be rapists and her shaming of Lysimachus are done with defiant fire, and her trembling revelation with a hysterical father is properly moving. The play’s themes pulse through: hope, endurance, chastity and fatherhood (Simon Armstrong plays both the incestuous Antiochus and the hilariously jolly King Simonides; Fergal McElherron enjoyably doubles the decorous honest Helicanus and a hawking, spitting priapic brothel-keeper) .
The Shakespearian beauties of language multiply – “Born in a tempest where my mother died” says Marina sadly “The world to me an everlasting storm”. The magic intensifies. And for all the foolery, asides and absurdities, Dromgoole never lets us lose sight of the central strange beauty: amid late Shakespeare plays this is unique because Pericles is innocent. No tragic flaw: this is not an arrogant Lear or Cymbeline , jealous Leontes, nor even a plotter of vengeance like Prospero. He is just tossed by fate like his ships in the sea-storms, grieving but unblaming, pure in loving sorrow. So when the redemptive resurrections come, high emotion dissolves into laughter at the absurdity of his delight, pure relief without remorse. “New joys wait on you” says old Gower, signing off with satisfaction. Beautiful.
box office 0207 401 9919 to April