I’m trying to catch up on my Shakespeare reading a bit so I should get through two this week. First up, is Pericles.
My main knowledge of Pericles comes from the 2018 Cheek By Jowl production, performed with their French company. I worked on a Weekend Lab at the Barbican Centre on this production. So, in some senses I am quite familiar with it but, in reality, I would say I am familiar with one version of the play, rather than the play itself.
I think this is another massively underrated and overlooked play. It is, however, very obviously not written entirely (or necessarily even mostly) by Shakespeare. Having read 32 of Shakespeare’s plays already this year, it was immediately evident to me that this had another author’s hand in it. It has a markedly different tone – more ethereal, in some ways less dramatic. It has more of a storytelling feel to it and, as an artist who is drawn to adaptations, this appeals to me quite a lot.
The audience is led through the whole play by a Chorus figure called Gower. This role is in some ways quite like the Henry V Chorus, introducing the story, then leading us from one act to the next, before finally rounding the story off at the end. This gives the scenes in between the feeling of vignettes. They become moments where the story comes to life before it is brought back under the control of the storyteller. It gives the piece an almost dreamlike quality. I find this very exciting and full of theatrical potential.
The story itself is also intriguing. It feels almost like a fairy tale, as Pericles is battered by fortune in a slightly fanciful way. It is a difficult narrative to do justice to concisely, but I would say that, broadly speaking, it is the story of a man who believes his wife and daughter are dead (in different ways) and from the depths of his despair and depression discovers that they are actually alive. As such, it is a story of family, love, grief, despair and hope. In this way it is both incredibly epic, yet also beautifully understated and human.
It contains some immensely powerful scenes – in particular, towards the end of the play. After learning that his daughter, Marina, is dead (or so everyone thinks), Pericles stops speaking – he literally speaks to no one at all. He has also allowed his hair to grow – it has remained uncut since he last saw his daughter 14 years previously. Not only that, but he dresses himself in sackcloth. So, Pericles is a picture of despair. He is incredibly pitiful. Then Marina is brought to him (no one knows that she is his daughter, not even Marina and Pericles) and she manages to make him speak. Not only that but her own story of loss and separation starts to be told, in the process it is revealed that she is indeed the daughter of Pericles. It is a beautiful and powerful scene. It is the moment the whole story leads up to and is possibly one of the best in Shakespeare.
I read this incredibly quickly which I think is always a mark of how much I enjoy something. The play almost seems to accelerate towards its conclusion, and it is very difficult to stop reading. At the start, you find yourself wondering where the narrative is leading you, then you reach the final couple of acts and it really grips you. It is definitely a piece that can be manipulated and performed in a number of different ways. I would certainly be tempted to start with the broken and despairing Pericles, then go back to show of how he got there, and then go forward to show how he is released from this to a new family life of hope.
I actually really love it. A bit like All’s Well That Ends Well, it is one of the ones that has strangely fascinated me and captured my imagination, in a way that is difficult to rationalise or articulate. I would absolutely want to direct it though!