Shakespeare Strikes Back [by James Wenley]
The notion, for a Shakespearean nerd such as I am, to attend a Shakespeare play that I had never read or seen before was a thrilling one. It’s like getting a new Star Wars movie or a new George R.R Martin novel, except this time its 400 or so years later. There was something rather romantic and pure about the idea, to see how much understanding and dramatic fulfilment I could take from a previously unfamiliar Shakespearean text.
That play is Pericles, Prince of Tyre (possibly a collaboration with George Wilkins), one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in the Jacobean period, but if I can explain my leaky hole in my knowledge of the Shakespearean canon, the producers of the University of Auckland’s Summer Shakespeare season reckon that this is the first time the play has been performed in Auckland. Turns out Pericles was a thrilling production, both for its novelty, but also director Geoff Allen’s innovations.
Pericles has to be one of Shakespeare’s unluckiest, largely faultless heroes. At the start of the play he is forced to flee for his life after learning the truth about the relationship between King Antiochus and his daughter, is chased by an assassin, saves the city of Tarsus from famine, gets shipwrecked on Pentapolis, wins the hand of Thaisia in a tournament, loses his wife to childbirth during a storm, leaves his newborn daughter at Tarsus, and loses her too when, following an attempt on her life (and Pericles believes her dead), she’s kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel where she teaches everyone how to live a life of virtue.
As it turns out, Pericles is an incredibly odd play. It opens with incest, and closes with an intervening Roman God. It spans an epic expanse of time and locations (including the title character’s disappearance for much of the second half) and for that it’s been attacked for its tonal inconsistencies and genre issues, even Ben Johnson got in on the act in 1629 calling it a “mouldy play”. Allen makes a virtue out of these perceived problems, embracing the play’s jumpiness by giving each location its own attitude and visual style. At the Pentapolis tournament the knights ride in on a motorbike, a vespa, and a wonky bicycle. The fishermen who save Pericles are decked in bright yellow rain jackets and speak with a distinctly Southern New Zealand lilt (and interpolate quite a few “G’Days” in the text, and even a “true dat”). T-Ann Manora’s black leather assassin Thalliard, who leaps out from a tree behind the stage, is the ultimate cos-play, Kill Bill via Kick Ass. Other design influences include Victorian steampunk, Elizabethan, and the classical period from costume designer Troy Garton. Finding out ‘where are we going next?’ becomes one of the great delights in this production, and an excellent way of keeping track of exactly where we are in the dense story.
Arrive early if you can, as the pre-show sets up some of the periphery characters we will meet along the journey, including the friendly if salty fishermen, and corseted ladies of the early night who roam around and chat. Boult (James Crompton) offers a kiss for a gold coin for one of the ladies, but our gold coins had already gone to much better use – a program, and a blanket (essential!). An energetic three person band (joined by hustler Laurien Barks, doing double duty as a Violinist) are eager to earn our applause as they set a festive and sea-faring mood (Six months in a leaky boat). With Music Director Kay Shacklock they contribute a live score to the play, part atmospheric (excellent for the storm sequences), part contemporary cool for no apparent reason (Thrift Shop).
After the rousing pre-show start (and a gruesome opening image), it does take some time to settle into the sense of the story. Aimee Olivia’s (alternating with Caleb Wells) breathless narration is difficult to catch, and combined with the music and blocking, invariably half the audience miss hearing her vital exposition throughout the play. The production’s strong visual focus largely counters for any story details missed, and the more epic storm set pieces are nicely realised by the ensemble’s twirling of fabric, the wind on the night and added atmospheric bonus. The setting, with two stages spaces to vaguely resemble a ship, creates a weathered aesthetic and a playing space with great potential.
Albert Walker is a capable leading man, taking us from gritty resilience to a broken older King. Patrick Graham (Antiochus/Pander), and Suzy Sampson (Simondes) are particularly at home with Shakespearean language and demands of the outdoor setting. Gina Timberlake is a feisty Bawd, and Kathryn Owens as Pericles’ daughter holds her own when the play focusses on her. Bemused fisherman Regan Crummer adds a great splash of comic chops.
In this first outing of Pericles I found less of Shakespeare’s insights into humanity – the production’s emphasis is not placed here – but instead a fast-paced rollicking adventure story. There are certain parallels with The Winter’s Tale [SPOILER ALERT], like paranoid Leontes, the nobler Pericles believes both his daughter, and his wife to be dead. While Winter’s Tale chooses not to the stage Leontes’ reunion with Perdita, Pericles structure ultimately moves towards a moving restoration between father and daughter, and husband and wife.
Pericles is a curiosity, and under the hands of Summer Shakespeare, a thrilling theatrical journey.
Pericles is presented by University of Auckland Summer Shakespeare and plays until 22 March. Details see The Maidment.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe