November 29, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
Pericles (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Dominic Dromgoole’s tenure as Artistic Director of the Globe is ending, perhaps unsurprisingly, with stagings of four of Shakespeare’s ‘late plays’ as the first full Shakespeare productions in the Sam Wanamaker. Pericles, the first of these, plays to Dromgoole’s strengths: a rousing, varied play with huge shifts in tone, varied environments and a large ensemble cast. Brilliantly, Dromgoole took the opportunity to give Globe supporting regular James Garnon the title role, and this decision in itself speaks volumes about Dromgoole’s value as the Globe’s house director. While his productions may not have been the most inventive or groundbreaking, he has perfected a ‘house style’ that is entertaining, collegiate and clear, while always finding moments of insight. He knows the space and his cast, and in his hands Pericles was an elegiac treat.
The production took quite some time to get going, and I don’t feel this was anything to do with George Wilkins’s stagecraft in the first two acts. Following a rousing opening sea-shanty by the whole ensemble, the cast grabbed the six low-hanging chandeliers and blew out all the candles, plunging the playhouse into darkness. The effect of this was impressive, as were the chiaroscuro effects caused by Antiochus and his daughter carrying candles (she had them lashed to her wrists, forcing her to hold her arms out in front of her). However, it made the whole scene simply, and inexplicably, too difficult to see. The skulls overhanging the stage barely caught the flickers of the flames under them, and Garnon nearly killed himself stumbling through the audience and tripping over a bag left in the aisle by a careless audience member. I love the lighting effects possible in the Wanamaker, but the blackout seemed to have no rationale, obscured the dynamics between scene and actors, and reduced the pace of what can be a thrilling first act to a moody crawl.
Once the travelling set in, however, Dromgoole established a simple but effective spatial arrangement, using the stage as the mainland and having new arrivals approach through the audience. At other times, the stage became a ship – for the second shipwreck, a mainsail descended from the ceiling and a plank emerged from the understage on which Pericles stood, clinging onto ropes and shouting to the heavens. The small space was, in this way, continually transformed into the play’s new locations, shifting its identity beneath the cast’s feet. Other spaces were used to fine effect, notably the staging of the tournament of the knights in flashes through the first-level windows of the theatre while the spectators cheered on stage, and the appearance of Pericles after his first shipwreck caught hanging in a net covering the discovery space.
The action was given beautiful framing by Sheila Reid’s endearing, witty and resonant Gower. Initially appearing in the darkness from a trapdoor with a candle lighting her way, Gower gave the impression of telling a tale by firelight, speaking in hushed tones of great matters. Her gentle manner was full of feeling for her characters, particularly the plights of Pericles, Thaisa and Marina. Her undemonstrative dignity came from outside of the play, yet she also joined Diana’s nuns to sing hymns, and at other times drifted in and out of the play’s world, keeping her distance but also shaping the sense of wonder.
Garnon’s world-weary Pericles went through several stages of development. Beginning as a young man, his pitch was higher and his gestures more dynamic and boyish. His relative lack of surety became a greater confidence when presenting himself to Simonides and in the trials, and he established a shy, romantic relationship with Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Thaisa. Later, bearded and taciturn, his voice when it emerged was tremulous, broken and uncontrolled, his stability questionable. By the final scene, this instability had become exuberance; overwhelmed by events, he raced about the stage, bringing down the house with his cries of joy and his insistence in dragging people across to meet his long-lost wife. Garnon managed the difficult feat of portraying a fundamentally passive character without reducing him to a cipher. His self-awareness, allowing him to reflect actively on each new scenario and position himself in relation to it, made him a compelling protagonist, and his repeated gestures to the heavens physically and metaphorically elevated him above the stage action. While in part Everyman (particularly during a staged scene of self-flagellation after Thaisa’s death) and in part Job, his own romantic faith in both love and the gods gave a human element to his experiences.
Pericles’s most active period comes in Pentapolis, and this sequence began strangely with Pericles effectively ignored by the fishermen who, despite the fact Pericles was hanging battered from a net, continued nonchalantly mending their own nets and addressing him over their shoulders. Nonetheless, the ensuing scenes set up a fairy-tale aspect to his story as, dressed in dented armour, he gave Thaisa a withered branch, and then after his tournament victories spoke to his competitors courteously and with humility. While other of the knights ran offstage holding Thaisa’s maidservants by the hands, Pericles’s politeness and quietness were rewarded with the humour of Simonides and the gentle teasing of Thaisa. The constant in Garnon’s performance was that he was continually out of his element – whether struggling to be quite as convivial as everyone else in Pentapolis, not getting the jokes of the fishermen, taciturn when arriving at Mytilene or nervous next to the rather more regal Helicanus (Fergal McElherron).
The cast was uniformly excellent. Alongside Pericles, the two main sufferers were Myer-Bennett (bizarrely doing double duty as Dionyza, which involved at least one lightning fast costume change) and Jessica Baglow’s Marina. Myer-Bennett was charismatic and lively, appearing in her first scene in a high chair as if an umpire, judging the tournament. The production turned the shields into a guessing game in which she anticipated the mottos on the shields and shrieked in delight as she got each right; the production did nothing to explicate what these mottos meant, but the point was rather to introduce the humour of this location following the more serious instances of incest and famine in previous lands. Myer-Bennett was headstrong and fun-loving, insisting on Pericles’s hand for the dance and standing up well to her father, Simon Armstrong, whose sheer delight in his teasing of Pericles and Thaisa was hysterical.
Baglow was upright and steadfast as Marina, clear when speaking and melodic when singing. The brothel scenes were a highlight partly because of Marina’s clear contrast with everything about her. The dynamic between the Bawd (Kirsty Woodward in a colourful outfit), Pandar (Fergal McElherron) and Bolt (Dennis Herdman) was characterized by interruptions, adlibs and bathetic asides that betrayed the clear influence of Dromgoole having recently directed Measure for Measure; the banter here felt natural and genuinely funny. Marina’s sobriety in this set-up made her both vulnerable and admirable, but Baglow didn’t shy away from showing the character’s very human fear and scorn, avoiding the trap of making her a dull paragon. She also benefitted from Steffan Donnelly’s creepily lecherous performance as Lysimachus. The bawds despised Lysimachus but fawned over him, laughing at his weak jokes and innuendos. He, with public school accent and attempted sexual confidence, tried to order Marina to obey him, but simply showed his own lack of confidence next to Marina’s absolute steadfastness. While the moment where he broke down in floods of tears felt forced, the comic effect didn’t diminish the strength of Marina.
The first reunion scene was slow, and at times a little too amusing as Garnon rolled his eyes and cried out. Playing the scene in silence was, I think, a shame – Claire van Kampen’s arrangements for this production were mostly stunning, and some music here might have helped set a more significant tone. The production was battling throughout with a frustratingly disrespectful audience – one man in the front row next to the stage was reading his mobile phone while Gower talked directly to him; a customer in front of me left noisily during the reunion scene and could be heard throughout the theatre loudly joking with a steward just outside about leaving during the denouement; and the sheer amount of whispering and talking had a negative impact on the attempts to create a spiritual atmosphere. Nonetheless, both Garnon and Baglow did fine work here, letting the recognitions unfold in agonising slowness until Marina’s final cry that her mother was, indeed, Thaisa.
The descent of Diana, by contrast, was played with complete austerity. Tia Bannon descended, elegantly and entirely unexplained, from the flies, and rose again following her speech without further comment. The beauty of this sequence was in its acceptance of the spiritual aspect of the play, an aspect brought out nicely by Sam Cox as Cerimon, whose matter-of-fact humour didn’t take away from his serious evocation of the gods, and his careful protection of Thaisa. The final scene was played primarily for laughs, with Thaisa fainting and then she and Pericles kissing beyond the comfortable limits for everyone else onstage, before Pericles rounded up all and sundry for thanks and congratulations. The tonal balance felt right, however, ending the production on a light and comic note.
I’m not convinced that this is the Pericles I want at the moment. This is a play that begins with someone fleeing persecution in Syria, being shipwrecked on the Mediterranean and (initially) refused help by the people on whose shore he lands. He’s a Greek who brings economic relief to an impoverished Turkey; he is separated from his family; and his daughter ends up being prostituted out after being turned away by those who initially took her in. It’s a play whose political resonance screams for production, and it would be a crying shame if this is the only outing Pericles gets for a while. But the gentle, light dance that concluded the play was earned by a production that celebrated kindness and love, that believed in reconciliation and that ultimately suggested peace was the reward for long suffering.