Pericles holds a strange place in the Shakespeare canon: it’s one of the only plays not in the First Folio; yet despite its obscurity, it was one of the biggest blockbusters at the Globe back in the day. I must admit that when I first read Pericles I thought it was an odd jumbled mess full of deus ex machinas and dangling plot threads. So why was it so popular? Now that I’ve seen it at the Sam Wanamaker, I can see why!
The staging is as rapid as the Mediterranean Sea it is set on, as the cast manage to whisk through island after island without delay. Meanwhile, Dominic Dromgoole uses giant sails and singing wine glasses to bring the storm scenes alive. And with so many characters, most actors doubled to create some fascinating parallels. Changes like the lascivious King Antiochus to the chuckling King Simonides (Simon Armstrong), or the lords that transform into the comic trio Pandar, Bawd and Bolt (Sam Cox/Kirsty Woodward/Dennis Herdman), are clever insights that shape the world of the play. Of course, the heroes of the play (the ever-reliable Jessica Baglow and James Garnon as Marina and Pericles) fill in for the Ulysses archetype that inspired this story.
While the play has its faults, and the collaboration between Shakespeare and Wilkins pulls the play in different directions (quite literally), I can see exactly why this play appealed to the audiences of the Bard’s day. With a plethora of characters and costume changes, larger-than-life storms, exotic locations, and some romance on the side, Pericles was designed as a spectacle that lends itself far more to the playhouse than the page.