Pericles is a completely ludicrous play, and I’m pleased to report the National Theatre of Greece treated the material with the reverence it deserves.
As my companion pointed out at the interval, “Actually seeing the play has resolved one inconsistency from the Wikipedia summary, but introduced several others.”
Pericles is one of that confusing set of Shakespeare’s “romances”, so dubbed after scholars tried and failed to fit them into the categories of comedy or tragedy. I like to call them Shakespeare’s “blender plays” – the ones where he took his favourite plot devices, stuck them in a blender, and wrote the play that came out.
Even for Shakespeare’s somewhat silly stock plots – if one pair of twins is good, two pairs is great! – these plays are totally ridiculous: statues come to life, Roman gods swoop in and out to deliver key information, or pirates turn up out of nowhere to kidnap the heroine and deposit her where the plot (sorry, “plot”) needs her to be.
Fortunately, the company of the National Theatre of Greece took all this absurdity and rolled with it, adding some of their own for good measure. (For the record, last night featured the best method acting I’ve ever seen from someone playing a fish.)
At the beginning of the show I spied a few patrons wandering around the yard in suspiciously long robes. A man in street clothes came out onto the stage, mic’d and ready. We assumed he was there doing what stage managers usually do in outdoor theatres under threat of rain: warn us the stage was slippy, let us know sword fights would be slowed down or left out, and so on. He made eye contact with someone at the back of the house and nodded. “Let’s play!” he said in English, and the show was off. The “patrons” pushed their way through the crowd to climb up on stage, and launched into a folk song to get things started.
The story of Pericles (it would be insulting to call it a plot) spans decades and countries, and defies structure. It starts off with a tight, terrifying narrative of assassins and incest (the horrifying abusive kind, not the offbeat quirky Arrested Development kind), before veering left into a national famine and taking a sharp right to hit a reverse beauty pageant with knights competing for the hand of the princess Thaisa.
There was a very ad hoc feel to the performance, even though it was clearly tightly choreographed. The actors wore the same clothes, pulling cloaks up to their neck and changing hairstyles to play different characters. However, there was a subtle but crucial difference between this production and the usual “let’s put on a show” vibe. In this Pericles, the actors weren’t putting on a show for the audience – they were putting it on for each other. They were playful, joyful and sharp, but rather than explicitly setting out to entertain us, they were setting out to have fun, and bring us along with them as an afterthought.
The actors broke into English to ask the audience for snacks, tell Britons we should join the euro, and, in one bit, draw in the Greeks in the audience (and possibly cement a plot point in our minds) by pretending to forget a word.
“What’s the thing you get when you’ve done something for someone?” the actor said in a plummy RP accent.
“Reward?” several audience members suggested.
“Yes, I know it’s a reward!” the actor mock-snapped. “What is it in Greek?” An expat in the yard supplied the right word, and the scene snapped back on.
Even though it’s bizarre and incoherent, I find Pericles very beautiful, and I can’t explain why. Towards the end of his life, Shakespeare started writing surreal, lyric plays about fathers and husbands regaining their lost daughters and wives. I’m not a fan of analysing literature by psychoanalysing the writer, but the reunion scenes in the last acts of these plays are always unexpectedly moving to me.
Pericles starts out as a play in which fathers control, abuse and talk over their daughters – even Thaisa’s father, who obviously cares for her, doesn’t allow her much freedom and physically attacks her when he hears she wants to marry Pericles. The play ends with Marina, Pericles’s daughter, talking to everyone who will listen (and even the ones who won’t), and Pericles recognising the worth of what he has thrown away in his daughter and presumed-dead wife. It’s stupid and melodramatic, but it’s also startlingly lovely. The National Theatre of Greece’s production underscored how thoroughly riduculous the play is without losing the unexpected beauty of the last act.
I saw Globe to Globe’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre at Shakespeare’s Globe on April 27, 2012.