Pericles (Globe)

Pericles

11 December 2015 (Fri), Sam Wanamaker Theatre

This was the latest staging at the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Theatre, the first in a series exploring Shakespeare’s four late romances. I can see why this is a lesser known play. It skates perilously on the line between far-fetched and ridiculous: shipwrecks abound, a dead body in a trunk fished from the sea is revived, armor lost at sea washes up on the shore with perfect timing, Pericles miraculously discovers his long-lost daughter (presumed dead) who then discovers her own long-lost mother (also presumed dead), all of whom happen to have ended up on the same sparsely populated island. Shakespeare has never shied from allowing magic and coincidence to do his work for him, but he really got carried away in this one. Maybe that had to do with his collaborator; the excellent program says that George Wilkins wrote the first part and Shakespeare the final three acts. In any case, it led to unintended laughter in the audience in some scenes, such as when the dead woman awakens or when the long-separated family find themselves improbably reunited. It must be hard to say those lines with a straight face.

The play unusually featured a narrator in something like a one-person Greek chorus. It was played here magnificently by Sheila Reid, a tiny old actress who really put her stamp on the role. She made a spectacular entrance to open the show: the candles are all extinguished, and she emerges from a trap door in the pitch black carrying a single burning candle, creating the stage equivalent of a film close-up. That’s the best opening I’ve seen since Lincoln Center’s South Pacific. She made every line count and was the show’s best asset.

James Garnon in the title role had a permanent scowl and was not overly impressive, though he did make a strong comeback in a fantastic (in both senses) reunion scene with his daughter, partly thanks to the long hair and beard obscuring his surly face. Others were excellent as per the Globe’s standards. (One note: as soon as the king in the first scene announces he has a daughter, I knew she would be played by a black actress – bingo. This diversity thing is becoming more and more tiresome.)

Director Dominic Dromgoole used the stage very effectively, including trap doors in both the floor and ceiling (an angel makes a memorable entrance) and banners and ship sails hung from the top tier. The entrances and exits overall were smooth and fluid. It was basically a very good production of a questionable play.

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