December 14, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Pericles (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who’s seen ‘Pericles’. It’s debatable, to be honest, whether I know anyone who’s even read it, it only surviving in severely corrupt or conjecturally reconstructed texts. It’s not a play which people seem to know much about (“It’s a Roman one, innit?”) and the theatre tonight, while bustling and energetic, still had a great many empty spaces.

This is the opportunity that the RSC has with the Complete Works festival. It’s committed to putting everything on- now it has to justify doing that. A bad ‘Macbeth’ won’t stop people coming and seeing the play done again, but a bad ‘Pericles’ or ‘Timon’ might just put people off for life. A blessing, then, that this production was such a success.

The first of Dominic Cooke’s Promenade Plays in The Swan saw the ground floor of the auditorium completely covered over, providing a standing space for about 100 members of the audience to move among the actors and be right in the middle of the action. There have been a lot of soundbites about how wonderful an experience this is, and it’s a difficult thing to describe. We started the play being pushed into lines and held at gunpoint by the rebel soldiers of Antiochus. Audience members were invited to join Simonides’ banquet. Gower stood among us throughout and ushered us, hushed, to sit before a platform and witness the reunion of Pericles and Marina. Throughout, the audience were continually energised and unsettled, and as a result completely gripped by the events. It’s a very clever trick, as a production doubles its pace by keeping its audience moving as fast as the actors.

It would be too easy to let talk of the promenade overwhelm talk of the actual production though- a mistake the RSC have made themselves in the publicity material for the play. Using an ensemble made up of a great many newcomers to the company, Cooke has created an African ‘Pericles’, the major roles being dominated by black actors with well-done accents. As Pericles reached shore after shore, we appeared to be going on a journey around that continent- Antioch was a military-run state, Tyre a ceremonial tribal land of robes and pyjamas, Pentapolis a European colony presided over by the ex-pat Simonides, Ephesus a spiritual retreat for hippies and ‘white rastas’, while Mitilene was a seedy red light district populated with transvestites and prostitutes, where white men and women attempted to exploit a young black girl. Pericles wandered through all this with an air of traditional innocence, a man of old values and good heart, experiencing modern Africa as a backdrop to his personal trauma. In this context, the play assumed a new relevance, juxtaposing international and cultural concerns with a simple family story.

Lucian Msamati, a relatively short and plump actor, wasn’t the usual image of a young hero, but he won our hearts throughout. He sang a lament in an African language for his deceased wife and had an excellent emotional range- the key recognition scene between he and his daughter was genuinely very moving, and made more so by the intimacy of it being performed so close to the surrounding audience.

The other performances were also very good- Richard Katz, Linda Bassett and Richard Moore made an excellent East End set of pimps, while Kate Fleetwood was a sassy and moving Thaisa. Nigel Cooke, who I’d been looking forward to seeing after his excellent turn in ‘Thomas More’ last year, was also a highlight.

This production makes you wonder why ‘Pericles’ isn’t performed more often- it’s fast, often funny, action-packed and has some beautiful moments. It’s a shame that the more popular ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is packed out every night while ‘Pericles’ is struggling for audiences, but I’d strongly recommend seeing this production before the run ends- it might be the best ‘Pericles’ you’ll see for years!

Posted in Theatre review