Review: Pericles's Voyage Not All Plain Sailing

Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 30 months ago
Review: Pericles's Voyage Not All Plain Sailing Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse 3
James Garnon in Dominic Dromgoole's production of Pericles. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Since opening at the beginning of last year the Jacobean-style Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has staged plays by the likes of Webster, Ford and Beaumont, as well as a few performances of Shakespeare plays transferred from the outdoor Globe arena. Pericles, though, is the first time a Shakespearean production has been created for this indoor theatre.

Not often performed, it is the first of the Bard’s late tragicomic romances, with the other three following here in chronological order. Together they make up Dominic Dromgoole’s farewell winter season after 10 flourishing years as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe before Emma Rice takes over in the spring.

Based on an ancient Greek tale, Pericles follows the adventures of the eponymous Prince of Tyre across the seas first as a fugitive from persecution and later drifting aimlessly after seemingly losing his wife and daughter. This epic maritime odyssey features riddle, famine, shipwreck, jousting, pirates and trafficking, with Pericles’ storm-tossed fate as uncertain as the elements.

Here given co-authorship billing with George Wilkins, the play has a rather unfinished, rough-edged quality that suggests the collaboration was not very close. Like Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Pericles has a fairy tale, allegorical quality that explores themes of death and rebirth, separation and reunion, with the protagonist undergoing an emotional as well as a physical journey. However, the text lacks richness, with thin characterisation and a fragmented storyline in which one event succeeds another without much connection. Maybe this haphazard quality reflects the vicissitudes of fortune, but it comes across more as a prototype than a fully-fledged drama.

Dromgoole’s production doesn’t quite put flesh on the bones of this underwritten play, but it does offer a lyrical, even magical, voyage with a few moments of genuine pathos and more of farcical humour. The bawdy brothel scene is particularly funny, while the knights’ tournament is staged in knockabout style in the corridor outside seen through opened shutters. As always in this space the beeswax candle lighting plays a major part in the ambience, with skulls lit sinisterly in the dark opening scene and the candelabra swaying wildly in the sea tempest. Jonathan Fensom’s design featuring sail and rigging gives the show a suitably nautical flavour, while Claire van Kampen’s Eastern Mediterranean music adds an exotic touch.

Globe stalwart James Garnon gives a strong performance in the title role, changing from fresh-faced romantic youth to bushy-bearded, prematurely aged decrepitude overcome by grief. Jessica Baglow gives his daughter Marina an emotional maturity that brings out purer impulses in others. Dorothea Myer-Bennett doubles as Pericles’ blushing bride Thaisa and the duplicitous Dionyza who tries to kill Marina. And Sheila Reid’s Chorus/Gower (author of the 14th century Confessio Amantis which is Shakespeare’s main source) is an elfin-like narrator of this sometimes bewitching fable.

Pericles is in repertory at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Bankside, SE1 9DT, until 21 April 2016. Tickets £10-£48. Londonist attended on a complimentary press ticket.

Last Updated 27 November 2015