In 1629, no less a critic than Ben Jonson decried Pericles as “stale”. Despite the valiant attempts of cast and director, the first half of the play still seems long, dull and turgid. As Pericles travels from place to place, there are brief moments of quality, but the first episode of real drama (as opposed to drawn out and tedious scene-setting) only occurs at its very close.
This is no fault of the cast. Despite a few stumbles over lines, from the off it was clear that these were good Shakespearean actors. At home in a whole array of roles, from the icily menacing to the ludicrous, each actor was utterly convincing and comfortable with the language. Their array of skills, with a wonderful variety of voices, physicalities and accents enabled just seven actors to take on forty-eight separate roles. Special praise should be reserved for Jamie Moore, whose booming voice and convincing gestures made him a stand-out performer as his multiplicity of characters, and Dom Applewhite, whose energy and conviction in playing a female brothel owner made for the funniest scenes of the show.
Edwina Christie’s direction is also sterling throughout. Her staging is effective, with the plain paper background being drawn and written on by the cast, which is invaluable in lending some sense of order to the confusing first half. Boxes fill the stage floor, which are both visually interesting and have a practical use in providing levels and containing the many props which the show demands. She used an array of devices to make the epic classical scenes workable in the Burton Taylor Studio, harnessing mime and inventively using props and costume. Particularly effective was the use of paper cut-outs for the narrator, as when one of two villains of the piece was symbolically set alight and dropped, burning, into a bucket of water.
Fortunately for the actors and Christie, the second half of the play is a tremendous improvement. The plot starts to unknot and genuine drama begins to unfold, as Pericles mourns the loss of his wife and then his daughter. Action then builds, culminating in ending scenes which are genuinely moving and brilliantly executed.
This is not one of Shakespeare’s finest works. Yet for a piece of imaginative theatre, with a talented cast, who eventually gain material worthy of their endeavours, this is worth watching.
Pericles is showing at the Burton Taylor Studio at 7.30pm until Saturday 30th November. Tickets £6/5 and available here.