Pericles isn’t the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays either to like as literature or to enjoy on stage. There are several very good reasons for this. Firstly, it is a collaborative effort by Shakespeare and the third-rate dramatist, pamphleteer and one-time petty thief and pimp George Wilkins – or is generally accepted as such. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, makes no bones about the point. A spirited attempt to prove Shakespeare’s sole authorship by the editors of The New Cambridge Shakespeare version of the play, published in 1998, deserved full marks for effort – but still could not really convince.

The internal evidence for a collaboration is overwhelming. The barely literate Wilkins’s hand is palpably predominant in the first two acts of the play. Much of what masquerades as verse here is not only lacking in inspiration but is on occasions so incompetently executed that it is extremely difficult to make it sound poetical no matter how hard an actor tries. It is simply inconceivable that this uninspired stuff is the work of the world’s greatest verse dramatist.

And when Shakespeare’s hand does at length become evident, with Pericles’s defiant rebuke to the storm that threatens his voyage home with his pregnant bride, it feels like a fitful recovery. It is as if the intractable task of finishing the drama he has been handed has quenched something in his spirit. Although there are moments of fine vehemence in the second half of Pericles there is no poetry to equal the enchanting lyric pastoral of The Winter’s Tale or the magic of Ariel or Caliban in The Tempest; these late plays stand alongside it in the Shakespearean canon and are (with Cymbeline) in repertory with it in the season that brings to an end Dromgoole’s most successful ten-year stewardship as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, in April.

Among other difficulties awaiting the director of Pericles, is the effect of its protagonist’s endless travels on the audience. Although in some instances prompted by the imperative of escape from danger, their frequency does suggest a tendency to take flight from moral responsibilities, notably to his own daughter Marina, and to the city-state of Tyre of which he is prince, and which badly needs his presence as a leader.

A similar question mark hangs over Marina’s eventual suitor and husband Lysimachus, who makes her acquaintance in a Mytilene brothel, where he has every intention of making himself her first client. I have no issue with the Pericles brothel scenes in themselves. They are meant to be nasty and should be played as such, not just as bawdy. But the entrance into the play of its heroine’s future bridegroom as a regular punter in a brothel in the city he rules takes some swallowing.

Dromgoole’s imaginative direction rises above the dif culties of the long first half, and the production gains in fluency and power as it goes on. He is at one with the spirit of this wooden, candle-lit interior, and what he creates in it is a response to that. The sea storms and shipwreck are exceptionally well done, and bring to the tiny stage a sense of real peril rather than merely asking the audience to accept the dangers that the stage props – wildly apping sails and percussion-generated wind and lashing rain – represent. Claire van Kampen’s music on period instruments, directed by Adrian Woodward, supplies a Shakespearean life even when that on the page falls short.

An inspired casting choice was the Pericles of James Garnon, whom we have recently admired at the Globe as Jacques in As You Like It and before that at the Sam Wanamaker in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore – where he doubled with quite remarkable conviction in the two wholly different roles of the sinister and brutal Papal Nuncio and the foppish suitor Bergetto.

In the second half his Pericles left behind the somewhat linear stage traffic of Acts I and II to bring extraordinary pathos and tension to reunion and reconciliation scenes that normally require indulgence from the audience. The poetry of the final scene in which Pericles is reunited with his wife Thaisa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) whom he has thought dead at sea, does not give much help to the protagonists. Lengthy speeches will not work here. Its power came from from the handling of the situation. Garnon’s consummate acting of this moment of sheer wonder imbued it with almost unbearable poignancy. If there were a few audible titters here and there in the audience I suspect they came not from detection of some absurdity, but rather from discomfort at the sheer level of emotion generated on the stage. Around me, it was handkerchief time.

As Pericles’s daughter Marina, Jessica Baglow radiated dignity in tribulation from the moment of her entry into the play, first to learn that she is to be murdered, then, after her ‘escape’ from this fate into the hands of pirates, to be sold to a future of prostitution. It is made clear that for Marina avoiding this fate Is not just a matter of a nicely brought up middle class girl wanting to exercise her expectation of preserving her virginity for a marriage to someone of her station.

In every reference to the brothel trade, from whoever he makes utter it, Shakespeare emphasizes with pity and abhorrence the nastiness, disease, pregnancy and probable early death that are the facts of the prostitute’s existence in that age. And this fate will be relentlessly handed down to whatever offspring she may succeed in bringing into the world. In this particular establishment it is not expected that either inmates or customers will escape infection. When Marina joins it, the house is in a state of crisis since all its workers are ‘good as rotten’ – so far gone in disease that they are incapable of sexual activity. When Lysimachus (Steffan Donnelly) enters the brothel his rst inquiry of the Bawd (Kirsty Woodward) is: ‘How now, wholesome Iniquity, have you that man may deal withal and defy the surgeon?’

In this tawdry ethos Marina’s reply to his importunate assumption that she will ‘come up with the goods’ was uttered by Baglow with such powerful pathos – ‘For me/ That am a maid, though most ungentle fortune/ Have placed me in this sty, where since I came/ Diseases have been sold dearer than physic – / That the gods would set me free from this unhallowed place’ – that the sudden shame that swept through Mytilene’s ruler at her rebuke did not seem in the slightest bit preposterous.

Doubtless these brothel scenes, which do have their humour, though it is a grim one, will never escape without some collusive giggling from an audience. Baglow’s Marina, in her scarifying confrontation with the house lackey who intends to rape her – ‘Do anything but this thou dost. Empty/ Old receptacles, or common shores of filth/ Serve by indenture to the common hangman./ Any of these ways are yet better than this,/ For what thou professest, a baboon, could he speak, / Would own a name too dear.’ – bleakly demonstrated that there are in reality no laughs to be had within these walls.

Pericles by William Shakespeare & George Wilkins, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, until 21 April 2016

By Peter Davies

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