By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Thursday 14th December 2006
This was a very entertaining evening. I may have found it better than The Winter’s Tale because I was more used to the changes in the Swan, which has, after all, been my favouritest theatre in the world, but then again, this production used the space quite differently, and we were sitting across from our previous seats, and had a much better view of all the action. In fact we only really missed the wedding between Pericles and Thaisa. All the rest was either clearly visible, or, even better, right in front of us, on the sloping ramp.
The costumes were a mix of African traditional with natural geometric patterns and earthy colours, and modern. Cerimon was initially dressed like a hippy earth mother, and the suitors for Thaisa wore fetching outfits, all matched, of blue tops and tight white shorts. (Is it just me, or is it warm in here?) The starving folk in Tarsus were suffering a fashion breakdown, as all (except the king and queen, of course) were swathed in grubby cotton sacking. Overall, it was a wonderful combination of colours and styles which worked effectively to accentuate Pericles’ travels, the diversity of cultures he visits, and the dangers he faces – the opening sequence has guards toting automatic rifles forcing the peripatetic audience members into place to hear Pericles face Antiochus’ challenge.
That Antiochus is a right bastard. Not only does he seduce his daughter into an incestuous relationship, but he’s so determined to keep her, he’s willing to chop off the head of any young man who dares to sue for her hand. In theory, of course, the guy just has to decipher the riddle to gain her, but there’s no way Antiochus is going to let anyone live who figures out what he’s been up to with his daughter. So either way, they’re for the chop. I did like the way the man standing behind Pericles on the dais started sharpening his knife as soon as Pericles accepted the challenge.
Pericles’ trip home and thence to Tarsus went very smoothly. I liked the way Cleon, King of Tarsus, is worried at first that his country is being invaded. We could hear the sound of helicopters overhead, suggestive of both rescue and invasion. Despite the relief effort, at least one starving citizen didn’t make it.
Then Pericles is off again, and, wrecked at sea, is cast up on the shores of Pentapolis. I enjoyed this bit, when the sailors/fishermen find him, and then rescue his armour. The chap who found it was clearly none too happy that Pericles claimed it back, and in the end this staging didn’t make use of the shield, but I suppose that scene is showing Pericles’ luck and/or air of authority. It’s also when he finds out about the availability of Thaisa, the King’s daughter, and decides to become one of her suitors.
The competition among Thaisa’s suitors was the best I’ve seen. At first, the scene is set for Thaisa’s birthday celebration, and the suitors are shown, in the box, bringing her gifts (not in the text, this bit). There’s a couple of bags, one large, one small, a cuddly toy, and a box. When the flashiest one comes along, he seems to have nothing to give her, but at the last minute produces a conspicuous set of car keys – just showing off, if you ask me! Then Pericles arrives, the final suitor, with nothing more than a single rose. At this point, Thaisa doesn’t really pay him much attention – he’s more of a puzzle than anything else.
Next comes the competition, and instead of sword play, we’re treated to a modern pentathlon – shooting, fencing (alright, we got a bit of sword play), swimming, riding, and running. One contestant was dropped after each round. For the first event they lined up on one of the walkways, and shot across to the other. One of the contestants managed to fell a stray bird, feathers floating down to make the point, and Pericles had to borrow (or grab) the gun from the chap standing next to him, as he obviously didn’t have one of his own. Bird shooter was eliminated, and the rest went down to the ground level for the fencing. By the way, Nigel Cooke, dressed like a cook from what I could see, was running a book on the outcome – I know the RSC needs money for the redevelopment, but really! Anyway, with five competitors left, the first four paired up, and when one was beaten, Pericles stepped in to fight the winner. Needless to say, he gets through to the final, and also wins that. Our hero is doing well. Then it’s off to the box for the swimming. A blue sheet is held up, and wiggled about a bit, while the remaining suitors swim two lengths of the box. Another one out, and we’re down to three. On the walkway leading to the ramp, the three eliminatees are sitting with drums, and the three still in it come along in riding hats, and with whips, and sort of mount them (it’s not as bad as it sounds). Then they have a race, with pauses for the jumps, and the sound of the drumming for the hooves. A finishing post is trundled into view towards the end, so we know who’s won. Another one bites the dust, and then it’s just Pericles and the flash git in the final sprint, up the ramp just in front of us. Despite his chubby appearance, and being against a lean, tall, muscular sort of chap, Pericles actually manages to win this one as well – hooray! I was so caught up in the story-telling, that frankly, I didn’t mind this a bit – it was just good fun.
Following the events, there was some sulking as Simonides made a speech congratulating them all, and some clenched teeth were visible through the smiles. But it’s all still to play for, as the competition wasn’t to determine Thaisa’s husband, it was just a bit of fun, a way to pass the time. However, at the banquet later, Thaisa’s obviously very taken with the victorious stranger. She has an interesting relationship with her father, Simonides. They both clearly love each other, in a healthy way this time, but they will keep pretending the opposite of what they feel – in Simonides case, it’s often to test how his daughter really feels, and given the nature of their relationship, that’s quite understandable. In her case, it’s not so clear, unless she’s just picked up on Daddy’s way of doing things. Or perhaps she’s a bit shy of declaring her interest in Pericles outright. Anyway, she pretends indifference, and is secretly (if you can call it a secret when the whole audience knows) delighted when her father tells her to take a cup of wine to the champion of the games. Pericles is pretty taken with her, too, and they have a nice little dance sequence, with interesting suggestions of the two of them trying to blend their different cultures.
Simonides is also pretty keen on this match, because early the next morning, he sees off the other suitors, spinning a yarn about how his daughter wants a gap year before she marries. Off they go, some sobbing with disappointment, and leave the field clear for Pericles. Simonides has had a letter from his daughter expressing her feelings for the man, and he confronts Pericles with it, pretending to be angry. Pericles is thrown into confusion. The last time he was presented with a piece of paper was in Antioch, and he only just escaped with his life. He responds that he hasn’t done anything to encourage Thaisa, and she arrives to be confronted by her pseudo-angry father and …. well, it all ends happily, as Simonides can’t keep up the pretence for long, and before you know it, the happy couple are man and wife.
The audience participation included invitations to the wedding feast, which I thought was a nice touch – go to a play, join in the wedding breakfast. Gower, the narrator, informs us of time passing, and of Pericles receiving news that he has to return to Tyre or risk losing his crown, so without more ado they head off to sea, Thaisa much pregnant. A storm comes up, and here the people at the table start to sway and throw themselves about as if on a storm-tossed ship – a nice segue. Thaisa is helped to the box, and behind a curtain she produces her baby daughter, and then breathes her last …. or does she? Pericles is distraught, and it isn’t helped by the superstitious sailors wanting to chuck Thaisa’s body overboard asap. Fortunately, they have a fully water-proofed coffin standing by (they were obviously boy scouts or whatever the ancient equivalent was – always prepared), and so off she floats, with a covering letter explaining the situation and asking for whoever finds the coffin to put her in a proper grave. Pericles then instructs the sailors to head for Tarsus, as it’s apparently nearer, and he plans to leave his daughter there for Cleon and his wife to bring her up. Given the circumstances of her birth, he names her Marina. Cleon and his wife are only too happy to help, having a daughter of a similar age themselves (regular viewers of Will’s work will be suspicious on hearing this news).
One point to mention on the staging. At the time Thaisa is in the box giving birth, the same actress who played Antiochus’ daughter is spotlit, standing on the ramp to our right, watching the proceedings. I wasn’t sure what this meant at first – was this Antiochus’ daughter haunting Pericles, or taking on the shape of his daughter, or what? Actually, it was a neat bit of doubling, which would have been even more effective if the risk of incest in the later scenes had been brought out. As it was, it made me pay attention, and introduced Marina to us before the break, as she’s all growed up afterwards.
The two scenes with Cerimon are run together here. Thaisa’s waking is well done, as she gives a huge start and cries out. Her last memory is of the childbirth, and she’s understandably confused as to how she got where she is. The one thing I feel needs more explanation in the text is why Thaisa assumes so quickly that she won’t see her husband again. But then we wouldn’t get that lovely last scene, of course, so never mind. Thaisa decides to be a nun at the temple of Diana, for she has landed in Ephesus.
Now we’re following Marina’s story more than Pericles. Growing up to be a beauty, with many talents and a wonderful personality, Queen Dionyza naturally takes a scunner to her overshadowing her own daughter – we knew there’d be problems! After bumping off Lychorida, Marina’s nurse, Dionyza suborns some chap, apparently her lover in this version, to do the same to Marina. Possibly fortunately, some pirates arrive at the exact moment to prevent this murder, and steal her away. The would-be murderer reckons he can get away with his failure, as Marina’s not likely to be seen again in those parts, but hangs around in case they throw her back and he has to do the job after all.
We, however, are off to Mitylene and the bawdy house. Pole dancers do their thing on the ramps, while sailors and others mill around the market place. The music is modern, the lights are flashing – all painting a picture of modern-day sleaze and corruption. No redeeming features to this den of iniquity.
Business appears to be bad. The box is where the bawd and her minions hang out – all 50s style, with a lovely air of seediness. They’re down to their last three whores, and they’re past their shag-by dates. Boult is sent off to the market to find fresh meat, and brings back Marina – a virgin. Hooray! She’ll make their fortunes. Or will she? We see two sailors leave the place, vowing never to enter such a house again – what can be going on? Then we see a man in a grubby raincoat, looking every inch the perv, and pretending to be blind, approaching the door. He’s obviously well known to the occupants, as the bawd informs us “Here comes the Lord Lysimachus, disguised”. Turns out he’s the governor of the place, and when he throws off his covering, they’re all suitably impressed at the way he fooled them all. Hanging the grubby coat on the back of the door, he enquires if there’s any fun to be had, or some such, and they offer him Marina, probably a last-ditch effort to get her to co-operate. He takes on the task with relish, and after a bit of small talk, the others leave the two of them together.
Marina’s clearly not happy with what she’s being asked to do, and as he undresses, taking off his tie and then his trousers, he asks her about her past, how she came to this line of work and so on. Her replies rebut his assumption that she’s a prostitute; as the bawd knows only too well, she’s yet to have intimate contact with anyone! She keeps turning his words against him – when he points out that she’s in a house of prostitutes, she asks if, knowing this, he would come here? She reminds him of his honour, that he is, to all outward appearance, an honourable man, and he ends up giving her money. And then more money. Then he dresses again, and heads off, throwing the grubby coat into the corner – the sign that he’s given up on paying for sex completely. The bawd is at her wits’ end when she finds out. Boult offers to give Marina her induction course, so they leave him to it, but she manages to persuade him that they’ll be better off using her talents – singing, weaving, sewing and dancing – to earn money honestly. She gives him the money the governor gave her, and he agrees to help her as best he can.
Meanwhile, Cleon has found out that Marina is dead, and who killed her. He’s rather upset, but his wife persuades him to go along with her plan to say Marina died of natural causes, and to mourn her as if they cared. When Pericles finds out his daughter is dead, he’s so grief-stricken, he goes on a seriously long Mediterranean cruise, refusing to leave his cabin, to shave, etc. Eventually he arrives at Mitylene, where the governor comes aboard to enquire after his health (plus carry out customs checks, probably), and finds a man suffering from serious depression. Naturally he thinks immediately of the amazing girl he met at the bawdy house, who has since been wowing Mitylene society with her beauty and wisdom. Fortunately, she happens to be close by, and soon arrives to help the poor unshaven man on the ship. This is such a moving scene, and I found myself sniffling quite a bit during it. At first, Pericles doesn’t want to see or speak with Marina, and he rejects her physically when she tries to touch him. When he does look at her, he’s reminded of his own dear queen, and it’s here that many productions insert some physical attraction for her that echoes the earlier incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter. But re-reading the lines confirms what this production has done – there is no actual reference to, not even a hint of, Pericles having lustful thoughts towards his daughter. Naturally, he’s overcome with emotion as she tells her story, and of course, she doesn’t know who he is at this point. I think that’s one of the difficult things with this scene – clearly establishing who knows what about whom. Anyway, there’s a touching reconciliation. Then the governor shoves his oar in, as he was only holding back from proposing to Marina because she wasn’t of a high enough status, but now he can ply his suit, and is accepted.
When Pericles takes some rest – it’s all been a bit much for him – he sees a vision of Diana, here doubled with Thaisa, who tells him to go and give thanks at her temple in Ephesus. There, Diana’s statue is led on by a group of nuns, among them Thaisa, and after Pericles’ speech of thanks, she recognises him and faints. It all comes out then, the family are reunited, lots of sniffles all round, and Gower finishes off by telling us how all the baddies get their just desserts, and all the goodies are rewarded. A happy ending.
I loved this production, and was totally happy that we’d booked to see it again at the Winter School. All the performances were good, and the whole production had a liveliness and joy of the storytelling that made it a delight to watch, and to listen to. Joseph Mydell was exceptionally good as Gower, as was Richard Moore as Simonides. But the whole ensemble were excellent, and I left with my spirits high, looking forward to another performance. We won’t often see such a good production as this.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me