Much as the Prince of Tyre is tempest-tossed from shore to shore, the play Pericles has suffered the buffets and storms of critical reception in the centuries since its composition. Though it once rivaled Hamlet in popularity, fellow Jacobeans sniped. John Tatham said Shakespeare “founder’d in’s Pericles and must not pass.” Ben Jonson proclaimed it a “mouldy tale,” opining that if the crowds liked it, “their palate’s with the swine.” The 18th century preferred George Lillo’s revamp Marina; the 19th century excised all the good bits, the incest and the brothel scenes, which is like putting on Macbeth without the ghosts or witches. (Horrors!) Though the naughty stuff was restored in 1939, performances have since been scarce.
Yet considering the success of Theatre for a New Audience’s lovely staging at BAM—as well as recent productions at the Public and the Culture Project—it’s either time to call us swine or to revalue Pericles. The plot still doesn’t make much sense—Pericles’ journey from terror to joy to loss to redemption includes too many shipwrecks, pirates, riddles, and resurrections. Even his daughter, guileless Marina, admits, “Should I tell my history it would seem like lies, disdained in the reporting.” Yet certain strains in Pericles—its fractured narrative, its dreamlike structure, and its focus on emigrants and asylum seekers—resonate especially today.
It isn’t director Bartlett Sher’s innovations that make his staging so appealing. He casts two actors in the lead (Tim Hopper at the top, Christopher McCann post-intermission) and arranges pointed doublings elsewhere. It’s unclear why Hopper couldn’t have played the role straight through. Though a trifle bland, his smooth syllables are preferable to McCann’s whines and descants. And while employing the extraordinarily diminutive Julyana Soelistyo as both Antiochus’ and Pericles’ daughter adds a touch of kiddie-porn frisson, that casting fails to illuminate the theme of incest.
Rather, Sher’s direction thrives most when he’s thinking less and feeling more. He choreographs the adventure scenes with brio and the pathetic ones with poignancy. He and his designers—Christopher Akerlind for set and lights, Elizabeth Caitlin Ward forcostumes—create a Levantine palette of blues, pinks, greens, and golds that can appear sickening or stately as occasion demands. The stage and the acting are lavishly uncluttered—a welcome physic to the trend of “Shakespeare in the Park” and Sher’s own Cymbeline. When, in the final scenes, some candles and shards of hanging glass provide the only set pieces and a sole viola plays mournfully in the background, Pericles declares, “This is the rarest dream.” He’s onto something there.