The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we have filed our reviews of two past productions of Pericles on this page.
Adrian Noble's farewell gift to the RSC is this splendid (in every sense) production of one of Shakespeare's least-often produced plays. The RSC has oddly scheduled it for only a two-week run in London, but it will transfer to Stratford in the fall, where it will be worth the trip.
A brief bit of boring scholarship: one reason Pericles is rarely done is that it exists in only one badly mangled early text that modern scholars have to work overtime to clean up and make sense out of. Another is that scholars generally agree that (as with a couple of other late plays) Shakespeare had a collaborator and probably didn't write much of the first half.
It is one of the powerful accomplishments of this production that none of that matters in the slightest. The text flows smoothly, there are no wild divergences in style, and the only hint that the second half is more Shakespearean than the first is that a rather fast-moving plot slows down to allow us to get to know the characters better.
The plot is an Arabian Nights-style episodic tale in which the title character travels through the eastern Mediterranean having various colourful adventures, culminating in the seeming loss of his wife and daughter, with whom (of course) he is reunited at the end.
Noble and designer Peter McKintosh put us in exactly the right frame of mind from the start by dressing it all in the sumptuous colours and incense-filled air of the middle east; and the choric narrator is played by Brian Protheroe as a Levantine merchant beguiling us with a magical tale.
Ray Fearon is a manly and attractive Pericles, believable both as adventurer and lover, and it is only in his late scenes of soon-to-be-relieved despair that he doesn't quite register. Kananu Kirimi is lovely as the daughter so pure that she reforms all the visitors to the brothel in which she is briefly held captive, while Rolf Saxon makes a foxy old charmer out of Pericles' father-in-law and Lauren Ward a sprightly modern woman out of his bride.
But the charms of the production lie less with individual performances than in the smooth flow of the action, the absolute clarity of the speaking, the evocative music and dance, and the general sustaining of the air of oriental fable that suspends our disbelief and carries us along.
It is ironic that one of Shakespeare's lesser plays should be such a triumph, but as with the Henry VI trilogy last year, only a company with the resources, experience and depth-of-talent of the RSC could have pulled this off.
One of Shakespeare's least produced plays, because its sprawling Arabian Nights plot and somewhat mangled text make it difficult to hold together, is given a clear and solid, if not especially heroic or poetic staging by the inventive director Neil Bartlett.
Resisting any temptations to spectacle, he stages it in a nearly bare space, a corridor full of doors, suggesting more than anything a hospital ward, especially since the titular hero is seen at both the play's beginning and end in pyjamas.
This hint that he may be a mental patient, with the whole play either a fantasy or a psychodrama staged by his doctors is, in fact, an interpretive dead end, but it isn't pressed very hard, and so doesn't get in the way, while the modern dress and bare stage help keep the play moving along and the focus on Pericles.
(A belated plot outline: the royal hero has a string of adventures while sailing around the eastern Mediterranean, culminating in a separation from his wife and daughter, who have their own adventures before an inevitable surprise reunion.)
The domesticating, anti-epic tone is established from the start as Bette Bourne's narrator is played as a seedy, slightly camp schoolmaster, complete with minimal visual aids and a comic impatience with our inability to translate the occasional Latin phrase. Will Keen plays Pericles almost entirely through reactions, wondering at or trying to make sense of his colourful or tragic adventures.
One directorial device for giving shape to the meandering play is an ironic pattern in the doubling of secondary roles as, for example, Martin Turner plays both the urbane father of Pericles' bride and, later, the cold assassin sent to kill his daughter. Roger Watkins is both Pericles' most honourable aide and a brothel keeper, while the admirable Angela Down (and why haven't we seen more of her recently?) is both the coolly efficient doctor who saves the wife and the raucous bawd who tries to corrupt the daughter.
Only one piece of casting fails utterly as, bizarrely, the beautiful, eloquent and musical daughter is played by a lumpen, hatchet-faced, charmless actress with a pronounced lisp and a singing voice like nails on a blackboard.
What we get then, barring that one performance, is a kind of Pericles-lite, a production that doesn't strive for much more than telling the story, and is thus more successful than many that reach further and fail.
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Review - Pericles - Lyric Hammersmith 2003