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Shakespeare’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Last night I saw Pericles for the second time.  Both of the productions were very fine, and very different from one another.  So…why does Pericles have such a mediocre reputation?  [On the other hand, it’s apparently always been popular with audiences.  I guess I’m not “sophisticated” enough to know not to enjoy it.]

In the chapter of his Lectures on Shakespeare about Pericles and Cymbeline, W.H. Auden takes a few moments to discuss the whole idea of “late work” by great artists.  He explicitly mentions the late quartets of Beethoven, describing the ways in which the choice of materials and expressive modalities comes from the artist trying to work out for himself, and not necessarily for any audience at all, particular artistic issues.  Auden also talks about these romances [along with Winter’s Tale and The Tempest] of Shakespeare as being “late works” in this sense.

Given the complexity of the plot, it’s a good thing that Shakespeare included a narrator to remind us of what’s going on where, with whom.  Both of the productions actually included maps in the program, with–as Arlo Guthrie would say–“lines and arrows” showing where Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and their daughter Marina end up going, after being separated because of a storm at sea.

The production that I saw some years ago in Vancouver at Bard on the Beach [this season’s program] set the play as a Victorian traveling theater troupe–with Gower, the narrator, in a frock coat and top hat, and musicians to provide somewhat Victorian sounding songs. 

Last night, at Cal Shakes, the setting was much more “oriental”.  The stage was covered with oriental rugs, and there were low tables and pillows that could be moved around for “set”.  Gower was imagined as an African storyteller.  The music was also more oriental–influenced by the music of India and the eastern Mediterranean.  One amusing touch was to have Antiochus–an evil king who is commiting incest with his daughter–enter accompanied by four actors padding in on all fours with tiger face masks.

The whole play was performed by a cast of about eight, parceling out about forty roles–with even the actors playing Pericles, Thaisa and Marina being multiply cast.

And then it all comes down to the scenes where the family is reunited.  First, Pericles discovers that is daughter is not dead, but alive, and standing in front of him.  And then, that his wife had not died in childbirth, but had been living all these years as a priestess of Diana at Ephesus.

Maybe it’s not as poetic as The Tempest, but both times I’ve seen it, I’ve ended the performance with tears running down my cheeks.  Perhaps the resistance to this play is that it is a genuine tragicomedy.  There are so many way that things could work out badly–the pre-performance lecturer commented on the similarities between Pericles and King Lear in the relation of fathers and daughters–but they don’t.  Call it fate; call it grace; call it pure luck; or call it the reward of virtue; it still has tremendous power to move me.