sat 15/06/2024

Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This late romance is fairytale-charming, but its comedy is overpowering

Pericles (James Garnon) is reunited with daughter Marina (Jessica Baglow)

Pericles is a play of voyages. Lands and landscapes crowd in, one after the other – Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, Antioch, Mitylene –  until our dramatic sea-legs are decidedly unsteady. The demands are great for any theatre, but for the Globe’s tiny, candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse they are impossible, freeing director Dominic Dromgoole to ignore spectacle and visual dislocation in favour of an emotionally-driven, chamber take on this late romance.

Designer Jonathan Fensom’s visuals may be coherent, and unity underlined in careful cast doublings, but tonally Dromgoole tosses us from mood to mood with unusual violence. The laughs are big but they are matched by the concentrated emotion of partings, losses and reunions. Yet the quality of both extremes only serves to underline the unevenness of this awkward tragi-comedy, exaggerating its lurching, staggering drama.

Jessica Baglow anchors the silliness, a constant still point of sincerity

Casting James Garnon as Pericles does rather load the dice. As elastic of voice as feature, Garnon’s comic instincts are hard to suppress, bursting through at the gravest moments (his interjection at Thaisa’s faint – “What means the nun? She dies!” is funny as never before) with cathartic but also, just a little too often, bathetic effect. His half-starved Pericles of Act V, accidentally reunited with his daughter, is dangerously hammy, and only Jessica Baglow’s sober dignity saves the scene. Lear this is not.

Also pulling for the comic team in this dramatic tug-of-war are Fergal McElherron’s Pandar and Dennis Herdman’s Bolt – running the most uproarious, and perhaps the most genuinely comic, brothel in all of Shakespeare. Aided by Kirsty Woodward’s terminally unimpressed Bawd, their scenes spark with all the energy that George Wilkins’s first-half text (if you accept the two-author theory on the play) lacks. Weighed down by cumbersome couplets that force Pericles to court Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s sparky-sweet Thaisa in verbal chains, as well as some unnaturally measured delivery, the backstory first half does drag, despite the elven charm of Sheila Reid’s Gower (pictured below) – a homespun storyteller who dips her tale in magic each time she steps on stage.

Fortunately it’s a different story for Acts IV and V. Jessica Baglow anchors the silliness, a constant still point of sincerity that persuasively (but never priggishly) deflates her would-be lovers with talk of morality. At last we have the balance for Dromgoole’s inspired comic joust of earlier – a riotous affair taking place in the horseshoe corridor outside the Upper Gallery, framed briefly through windows, and the bawdy humour of Simon Armstrong’s Simonides.

Pericles’s fairytale quality is beautifully captured. In Fensom’s bold designs the small theatre becomes a storm-tossed ship, rigging pulling and snapping from floor to ceiling, and the whole tale quite literally springs “from ashes” as the bright, chattering scene of the Prologue dissolves into darkness as candles are suddenly extinguished, leaving just their glowing roots behind. Claire van Kampen’s music roams from Western folk to Mediterranean dances and even some Middle Eastern exoticism for Simonides’s court, charming without being twee.

Shakespeare’s sequence of late romances – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – will continue in order, taking us into 2016 and Dromgoole’s departure from the Globe. It’s a lovely project to end his tenure, but inevitably one that sets the experimental enthusiasm of Pericles in close comparison with the fully-formed drama of The Tempest. The former might not be the “mouldy tale" scoffed at by Ben Jonson, but still has rough edges that this production doesn’t quite succeed in smoothing.

  • Pericles is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21 April 2016
The fairytale quality of 'Pericles' is beautifully captured here


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters