Wednesday, December 23, 2015

PERICLES aka Shakespeare's Round-The-Med Revue at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This year saw quite a few visits to the Globe Theatre to see several of the productions under their Justice & Mercy season and, now that it's colder, we are booked to see their four late Shakespeare productions in their atmospheric Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

First off the rank was the departing Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's production of PERICLES, a lesser Shakespeare which he co-wrote with the little-known George Wilkins.  It's disjointed feel is probably down to this partnership, scholars suspect that they split the play down the middle with Wilkins taking the first few acts and Shakespeare picking it up towards the end - which would explain why the play feels more involving towards the end but it's still not a play I would go out of my way for.

The trouble is the plot which piles on thinly plotted characters and absurd situations which mostly happen offstage but are relayed to the audience by the show's narrator Gower (the name of the author who wrote the story the play is based on) but who here is played by the ever-twinkling Sheila Reid.  Since her National Theatre days at the Old Vic under Olivier's direction, Reid has been giving constantly good performances but she can sometimes play cutesy and she does that here, almost distracting the audience from the melodramatic plot twists she tells us about.

Was there ever a more tiresome lead role than Pericles?  Up and down the Mediterranean coastline he wanders bringing chaos and misery wherever he goes... he arrives in Antioch to marry the King's daughter but discovers their secret incestuous relationship so he flees, pursued by the King's assassin, back to his home city of Tyre but the assassin turns up there so he is off again to Tarsus where he relieves the city of it's famine but, feeling unsafe, sets off again where he - and us - endure the first of two storms at sea...

One is reminded of Thelma Ritter's caustic line in ALL ABOUT EVE "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at your rear end"!  One feels Pericles really needs his life set to a oh-why-me song a la Travis but he is washed up on the shores of Pentapolis where, with the King's eager help, he marries the princess Thaisa.  You would think that would make him stay in one place - but then he hears that the incestuous King and his daughter have been killed by a lightning bolt (they really don't write 'em like this anymore) and he journeys back to Tyre in safety.

But safety isn't Pericles' top quality and low and behold, another storm at sea happens just as Thaisa is giving birth - come on, you just KNOW she dies and is buried at sea where she is washed up at Ephesus and revived by a physician wherein she goes off to be a high priestess of Diana while Pericles leaves Marina, his baby girl, with the King and Queen of Tarsus while he wanders off again.  Pericles is not a good role model for single parenting as the Queen starts to develop a psychotic hatred for Marina for getting more acclaim than her own child.  So she hires an assassin...

Yes this *could* be where you came in but one starts to discern the occasional insight in the writing and you know that Shakespeare is on the scene. I can imagine him thinking "What has Wilkins done here?" and throws in a dollop of sex straight out of MEASURE FOR MEASURE when Marina is kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel.  Finally it gets going with a few decent laughs!!

What makes PERICLES worth the climb is how Shakespeare uses his part of the play to shift the play away from the dreary title character's perambulations and leads us more into explorations of fathers and daughters, magic, reconciliations, humorous supporting characters and a feeling of tragedy averted.  A prime example is Marina's reuniting with Pericles after so many years apart; only a year or so before Shakespeare had given us a similar scene in KING LEAR which ended in nihilist brutality, here all is forgiveness and harmony.

For all it's absurdity, Dominic Dromgoole certainly kept the action moving on the bare Wanamaker stage with Jonathan Fensom's spare design.  I had seen the play once before at the National Theatre in 1994 which was pretty irritating but I think this one will tide me over for a while.  A major problem with this production was the dull performance by James Garnon as the titular Prince of Tyre.  He's not an actor I particularly care for and his gurning delivery of his speeches failed to move.  Sadly it appears he is beloved at the Globe (so I presume he's cheap).

Much more eye-catching were Jessica Baglow as the tyrannically virginal Marina, Dennis Herdman as the randy pimp Bolt and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as both the put-upon Thaisa and the inexplicably murderous Queen Dionyza.

I am looking forward to seeing THE WINTER'S TALE, CYMBELINE and THE TEMPEST at the Wanamaker Playhouse in the coming months as they are all stronger plays than this Greek's Own adventure.  Oh and no thanks at all to former Globe artistic director Mark Rylance who occasionally kneed me in the back on the Playhouse's absurdly cramped backless seating.  You would also think someone so versed in the theatre would remove his hat in the auditorium too.

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