Though lacking in an understanding of William Shakespeare that could be considered greater than minimal (a sonnet here, a Welles film there), my appreciation of his beguiling works has only fostered following compulsory education which, if anything, worked to the contrary. In an elated state following a viewing of Roman Polanski’s marvellous 1970 film of Macbeth, I went into Pericles at the Redgrave Theatre knowing nothing besides its authors and the rearranged state of its structure.
John Hartoch’s Pericles begins a little shakily, as we’re introduced to a nameless maiden recently forced into prostitution at the behest of profiteering brothel owners, perceiving her virginity to have a high price according to the sadistic sexual customs of Classical Greece. However, the first customer she must serve is Lysimachus, governor of the town, whom she charms by way of her noble speak of virtue and honour. With such wit, and at the enablement of the governor, she earns a reputation in the town as a modest scholar, well equipped in the art of storytelling. So when the mute prince Pericles arrives on shore, it is not long before he visits this place, if only in a completely paralysed state. Unaware of the identity of this tortured man, the maiden proceeds in telling the story she knows best: that of the Prince of Tyre, Pericles, whose tragic tale is performed in front of his – and our – very eyes.
It is not until this play within the play commences that the true story at the heart of Pericles is unravelled, making the bookending brothel scenes feel awkwardly shoehorned in, if emotionally charged. Nonetheless, the pervasion of superstition throughout the play – its biblical fascination and inherent, irreligious morality – manage to elevate the mythical fantasy out of its condescending, earnest as it may be, origin. Further, it casts one scornful eye on monarchical fanciful procreation and the other sympathetic eye on the laborious life of women. This, I imagine, is Shakespeare’s contribution as its prevalence feels heightened in the play’s latter half which, I later learned, was written by the Bard of Avon as opposed to George Wilkins whom composed the opening half. Ultimately, we shall never know what Pericles may have been if it was under total authorship from Shakespeare, so Hartoch’s achievement as director is all the more worth noting. Through wholesome, yet humble, set design, the insertion of several musical elements and the brazen revamp of the original text, he flourishes in finding entertaining ways to tell the story (Though the appeal of characters dressed as if they had just stepped out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel or, a more likely source of influence, a BBC One drama remains allusive to me.)
The cast ought to be pleased with providing a Tuesday night audience with admirable performances, with my personal approbation directed first toward Billy Howle as the young and erroneous Pericles, second (and you’re going to have to forgive this first-time theatre reviewer for not picking up a programme) an overly eager performer in the maiden’s meta-play, and third Martin Bassingdale as our residual, snarky narrator: Gower.
The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production of Pericles plays until Saturday 2nd March at the Redgrave Theatre.