Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is another one of the Shakespeare plays where, when I told people I was going to see it, largely responded with, “Shakespeare wrote that? I’ve never heard of it?!” The story of a royal prince who is shipwrecked and is left to believe that his wife and child are dead (spoilers: they aren’t, and think HE is dead, cue scene), it has had a muted response from critics who don’t think it’s a particularly good play, made worse by the fact that Shakespeare likely only wrote the second half, the first being written by George Wilkins.
This was also the first Shakespeare play that I went to go and see at The Globe, which has a commitment to “traditional” productions as they would have been put on in Shakespeare’s time. Pericles as numerous significant scene changes and many productions in the last few decades have sought to cover up the deficiencies of the text with showy set pieces (mainly boats) and dramatic costumes, but Shakespeare’s Globe leaves that all aside and leaves Perciles to shine for what it is – a bloody funny play.
It is not a high culture play, there are no long monologues on the condition of man, and this may explain why when attempting to write this review, I was unable to find any other reviews by professional critics. The production is done by Shakespeare’s Globe Touring Ensemble who are touring three plays to the masses, so there is a cast of only eight people, who ingeniously swap costumes, accents, and characters throughout the play, which adds to the silliness. And silly it is. The promotional text for Pericles says something about “exploring the themes of refuge and displacement” and how this can speak to us today, and maybe if I sat down and thought about it, I would find some relation to how it might feel to wander the world believing my family was dead, but this is mainly a pretext just to keep the play going. I honestly laughed every couple of minutes. I mean, it is about a shipwreck and there are some tragic bits, but honestly, when Simonides is simultaneously winding up Pericles seeking the hand of his daughter while breaking the fourth wall in an Australian accent, no-one had a straight face. Looking up the script, there’s actually a rape scene that I had forgotten because the intended victim, Marina (Pericles’ daughter), subsequently goes on to convert everyone to religion in order to preserve her virtue, which is played as ridiculous as it sounds.
The Globe offers usual seating around the circle, but for the princely sum of a fiver, you can stand in the yard and watch the performance standing, which I thought would be really tiring but actually, I go and stand at concerts and gigs all the time, and although towards the end I was shifting a bit from side to side, it was a much better experience than standing or sitting in Sam Wanamaker. There were a lot of Americans present for some reason, and I was rained on (it is open air as well) but this was all manageable.
The Globe was set up to involve audience members, so the cast do come over and interact with the groundlings, rush through the yard for some scenes, jump on and off the stage, which was immersive without feeling under pressure. It has to be said, they do it really well such that I just didn’t notice several times that cast members were in the audience until they were suddenly shouting “aho!” or whatever they were doing. The play was introduced and closed with a song and dance number, which I enjoyed. I don’t know whether they do it for every play, but it very much added to the air of travelling theatre troupe they were going for.
I would interested in seeing a “serious” performance of Pericles, just to see how it compared, but as it stood, it was a good introduction to the sillier of Shakespeare’s plays. It did strike home, as I have written before, that these plays were written to entertain people who would otherwise be at bear-baiting and public executions, so they are intended to make you laugh.