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The first indoor Shakespeare production at the Globe is this thrillingly derring-do heavy take on the Bard's late play
What do you give audiences? More! ‘Pericles’, Shakespeare’s Jacobean late ‘romance’, is absurdly packed, plot-wise. It’s generally accepted that the Bard wrote it with younger collaborator (and brothel-owner, fact fans) George Wilkins – specifically the final three acts – and a jostle of voices drives everything in it. And it’s opening the Globe’s winter season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Within minutes, the titular Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is already on the run – pursued by an assassin – after discovering the incestuous relationship between a king and his daughter. Then, after pretty much single-handedly resurrecting the fortunes of the famine-stricken city of Tarsus, he’s shipwrecked and married to Thaisa, daughter of the King of Pentapolis.
And… we’re still only about a quarter of the way through. Ahead, there’s still Thaisa’s death, Pericles leaving their daughter Marina in the care of Tarsus’s rulers, Cleon and Dionyza (who tries to have her killed), Marina’s abduction by pirates and then her virtuous stint in a brothel, where she kills trade by talking everyone out of sex and into abstinence.
It’s a ridiculous tissue of out-of-the-blue coincidences (thank God for those unwitting, murder-preventing pirates popping up, eh, Marina?). And it gives us a roll-call of issues and events – incest, shipwrecks, tournaments and a cameo by a goddess – that could read like a digest of Shakespeare’s greatest hits or the front page of a Jacobean-era National Enquirer.
But, thanks in no small part to director Dominic Dromgoole, it's often ridiculously fun - an unashamed crowd-pleaser, with anchoring chorus figure Gower (Sheila Reid in great, gossipy housewife mode), cocking a wink to us in verse and performance. Where Shakespearean audiences knew Pericles’s story, Dromgoole’s naturalistic touch pays dividends, with the brothel scenes a comic highlight.
James Garnon is an endearing young Pericles and a joyfully absent-minded old one; Dorothea Myer-Bennett is great as Thaisa and the manipulative Dionyza (canny double-casting that teases out the themes of parenthood); and Simon Armstrong is brilliant as Simondes, the utterly over-excitable king of Pentapolis. The cast draw out the play’s flashes of wry self-awareness (more acute in the later, Shakespeare-penned acts) with a lightly modern sensibility.
But – and this is what adds class to the brass – it’s also genuinely touching at times, as Dromgoole works candle-lit magic into the smallness of the Wanamaker Playhouse. He captures the stillness of tableaux in some scenes. The play’s country-spanning sweep is rooted in reunion, and this production’s greatest success is to leave room for gentleness among the rough and tumble.