July 20, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Pericles (Willow Globe) @ Oystermouth Castle
The Willow Globe in Powys, Wales, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019, and the coincidence of the British Shakespeare Association holding its first conference in Wales led to a special performance of the company’s Pericles in the grounds of Oystermouth Castle. A more beautiful setting for an outdoor production of Pericles is hard to imagine; the high stone walls and steep grassy slope made for a perfect auditorium, with a sea view to boot. With a rough breeze circulating throughout, the stormy weather of the play had unusual sensual presence.
Despite being performed on the Gower peninsula, a coincidence with the name of the play’s narrator noted in the programme, this was a surprisingly un-Welsh production. The strongest component was the band playing Simon Fraser’s music, which drew on Mediterranean influences and even included an Arabic folk song for Marina (Caitlin Williams) to sing to the troubled Pericles (Nathan Goode). The music was beautifully done, though the overwhelming whiteness of the cast meant it felt somewhat appropriative, and it might have been lovely to see the company claim a Welsh identity for the play.
Sue Best and Ian Yeoman’s production boldly took on the full text with no appreciable cuts. For the most part, the amateur company handled the text with confidence, especially Yeoman as an eloquent, commanding Cerimon, and Laurence Golding as an ebullient, avuncular Simonides. But the emphasis was on an ensemble ethos, with the whole large ensemble assembling to speak the words of the choruses, Gower becoming a collective voice that occasionally broke up into the characters being spoken about. The Chorus moved about the audience, allowing the narration to come from all sides.
There were a few highlights to the production. The long battle between the six knights was played out as a series of one-on-one duels in which Pericles bested each of the knights in turn and they comically ran away or were knocked out, the last after trying to take on Pericles without weapons. The dance was then played as a secondary competition, with Pericles unsure of his footing as the six soldiers linked arms and began stepping in time; as he built confidence and began leading the dance, the other knights peeled off in exhaustion until only one other was left. This was a surprisingly detailed moment, showcasing Pericles’ ability to adapt to his circumstances and prevail.
Some easy laughs were obtained from the appearance of three middle-aged prostitutes when the scene shifted to Mytilene, showing off their fishnets and broken teeth to the audience while the band played a sultry jazz number. Erin Draper’s Lysimachus was a smooth operator, fully aware of the depravity of his own city, but not above going straight to Pericles with stories of virtue when it suited him. Here, when Lysimachus suddenly asked Pericles for Marina’s hand in marriage, Marina looked momentarily surprised as her father – who she had never met – suddenly assumed right of approval over her love affairs; it was only a moment, but hinted at something more interesting and problematic in the play’s sudden reversals and discoveries.
The play’s various locations had a certain amount of distinctiveness, the jazzy Mytilene distinguished from a Tarsus where everyone wore rags and begged, or the boats which were indicated by actors rocking and the sound of a wind machine. The sudden intrusion of two parodically dressed pirates to kidnap Marina was amusing, and Diana (Kate Williams) was surprisingly seriously realised, and returned as her own statue in Ephesus. The deployment of a full size coffin for Thaisa (Aimee Corbett), carried in by the ensemble, was also an impressive intervention in the small-scale production.
Where the production struggled was in establishing emotional coherence. The lengthy reunifications of the last act were oddly paced, focusing more on delivering the lines than on the import of what these might mean; and the final act inadvertently undermined itself by having Thaisa seemingly instantly forget about Marina while greeting Helicanus, and the family barely brought together. The production didn’t linger on the troubling implications of Antiochus and his daughter, and while Maria Carreras did a nice job of making Dionyza a hissable villain, the reluctance to make cuts meant that the more interesting character choices struggled to make themselves seen.
The production made a fine case for its venue, and to see Pericles done as a community-focused project is a rare thing indeed. It’s a play, though, that would have benefited from a stronger sense of purpose and ownership; deferring to the text without exploring its possibilities made for a long evening, and left the throughlines as adrift as Pericles himself.