Count me among those who consider The Adventures of Pericles a mediocre play at best. If it were made into a blockbuster summer movie today, the critics would not be kind – bland hero, prolonged, ridiculous plot, weak female characters …
The beauty of theatre, however, is that a bad play doesn't have to be bad in performance. Indeed, in director Scott Wentworth's production at the Stratford Festival, the more hackish the writing, the more fun is to be had.
Handsome seafaring hero Pericles (a sweetly shallow Evan Buliung) is off adventuring, attempting to win the hand of the daughter of King Antiochus (Wayne Best) by answering a riddle, when he comes to the realization that the king and the princess have an incestuous relationship. Disgusted and in danger, Pericles flees by ship – with Antiochus sending an assassin (E.B. Smith, making the most of it) hot on his heels.
Shipwrecked in another land called Pentapolis, Pericles tries to win the hand of another daughter of another king, Simonides (Wayne Best, again). But this king is a benevolent ruler and dad of the year to boot – and after a sword-fighting competition (rather thrilling in John Stead's fight direction), he enthusiastically consents to the marriage of the now penniless Pericles and his daughter Thaisa.
The fairy tale seems to be coming to a surprisingly swift ending – but you can't head to the bar quite yet. There's another perilous sea voyage to come – one that separates Pericles from his wife and newborn daughter.
All Shakespearean authorship claims should be taken with a grain of salt, but there's an informed hypothesis that the Bard co-wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre (as it is usually known) with an inn-keeper and minor dramatist named George Wilkins – and that the early acts are mostly Wilkins, the later ones mostly Shakespeare.
The final acts certainly do seem in keeping with Shakespeare's romances, such as Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale that feature fathers and daughters reuniting, or wives coming back from the dead, written while Shakespeare was contemplating his own impending retirement and return to his estranged family in the other Stratford. (Again, a grain of salt.)
Regardless of who wrote what, the early scenes of Pericles have a playful quality under Wentworth's direction. There's much doubling and redoubling of parts – and it is particularly entertaining to watch Best shift from a twisted Antiochus to a hilarious Simonides. The way the latter greets the knights competing for his daughter's hand – a sunny and surprised "Knights!" – pokes a gleeful hole in the absurdity of the proceedings.
Even Buliung's serious Pericles suddenly seems to be in a Shakespearean parody when he just outright compares Thaisa to a summer's day.
It's equally amusing, but also a little thought-provoking to watch Deborah Hay play both daughters. To the incestuous one described as sinful and never allowed a name, she gives dignity with the graveness of her performance. And to the virtuous one whom Pericles marries, she gives a cartoonish doltishness – making a "ping" sound as she knights knights. In these parts, Hay undermines and then sends up the sexism of the writing.
Wentworth further enacts feminine revenge on the play by having Diana (Marion Adler), the goddess frequently invoked by the characters, and several of her maiden priests, speak the lines normally spoken by a narrator named Gower. Other actors get other snatches of the chorus that they use to fill out the often underwritten characters.
It's all an enjoyable romp until, after intermission, Pericles hits a rough patch of water – as Shakespeare (perhaps) and seriousness step in.
Now, Hay plays a single part, Marina – the daughter of Pericles, who is nearly killed by an evil stepmother figure (a convincing Claire Lautier) and then kidnapped by pirates and sold into a brothel. This virgin whore then talks john after john out of whoring, which sends them screaming to Diana's temple.
This is a silly and sanctimonious turn – but one that's difficult to be playful with, because it centres around sex slavery and a woman constantly on the brink of rape. Wentworth tries to find the right tone, but the brothel scenes end up lapsing into bawdy Bard semaphore and are simply a snooze.
The tripling up of Hay makes her the star of the show rather than Buliung's passive Pericles – but it also sets up a father-daughter reunion at the end of the play that is also of actors who had hitherto shared the stage as lovers. It's an acceptable incest to mirror the unacceptable one at the beginning of the play. As the play passes from Wilkins to Shakespeare, Antiochus had been forgotten – but Wentworth's production remembers and tries to provide a resolution to the riddle.
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