Shakespeare's play, Pericles, has had something of a bad rep over the years, with some early scholars dismissing the work from the canon altogether; while others have maintained that the text is the cobbling together of half remembered lines by former cast members. Some have complained about the quality of the writing, usually blaming Shakespeare's involvement with notorious bad boy George Wilkins - the Charles Bukowski of his day. Publican, brothel keeper, scribbler, Wilkins was certainly the Bard's most exotic collaborator.
Some critics, however, have admired the play. Always the contrarian, TS Eliot really rated it, referring to it as a "very great play". A very great play/ or patchy B movie co-written with a pimp . . . Pericles, has divided critics in much the same way as my favourite blood fest, Titus Andronicus. Both have had their authorship questioned, and both have suffered aspersions about quality. Perhaps because of the current hunger for ultra-violence, Titus has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, with a triumphant recent rendition by the RSC, directed by Michael Fentiman; and a forthcoming production of the play at the Globe in April.
Pericles, meanwhile, remains somewhat marginalised. This is a pity, as it is, as Eliot would have it, "a very great play", exploring the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women; and the nature of belonging. It is significant that the Bard wrote the play with a sex industry insider. Shakespeare was comfortable rubbing shoulders with members of the underworld, and was open minded enough to recognise talent among their ranks. His collaboration with as dark character as George Wilkins thus says a lot about Shakespeare. It also says a great deal about Wilkins, and his writing abilities. The result is an illuminating examination of the human psyche - and is among Shakespeare's best plays.
Pericles is an epic sea-faring saga, which addresses controversial currents and themes, such as incest, family breakup, human trafficking and prostitution. The narrative centres on our eponymous hero, who arrives in Antioch to try for the hand of the King's daughter. Unbeknown to Pericles, the King has been having a monstrous incestuous relationship with her. Wishing to keep his familial sex slave to himself, Antiochus presents all suitors with a challenge - to solve a riddle about her, or to face death. Brave, clever, Pericles takes on the challenge, and quickly sees all the evidence pointing to an incestuous relationship. The King demands an answer. Pericles responds reluctantly, but correctly. Antiochus is shaken at being outed like this, but pretends that the answer is incorrect. However, he feigns magnanimity and gives Pericles the opportunity to try again in a month. In reality he makes plans to kill him.
Pericles' flight from this peril sets in motion the dynamic, sea faring narrative of the play. Through his travels, Pericles wins the hand of beautiful Princess Thaisa, who bears him a child during a violent storm at sea, and promptly expires. Her body is committed to the briny deep; however, she is later washed up at Ephesus, and revived. Thinking she has lost both her husband and daughter, Thaisa enters the Temple of Diana (or Artemis, as she was known to the Greeks) to take up a life of celibacy and devotion.
Meanwhile, Pericles and his new baby daughter, Marina, survive the storm. To keep her from danger, Pericles entrusts the infant into the care of a royal couple. As Marina grows up, however, her beauty outshines that of the couple's own daughter, and they thus arrange for her to be killed. Before this can happen, however, she is kidnapped, and trafficked into a brothel in Mitylene on the island of Lesbos. There she is visited by a number of horny punters, but manages to dissuade them with appeals to their better nature. Eventually, the brothel management give up on her, and she is placed in a more respectable profession - needlework.
Pericles arrives at Mitylene, consumed by despair. The locals don't know what to do with their despondent visitor, so call on the virtuous Marina to cheer him up. Thus follows an emotionally charged reuniting of father and daughter, after which the couple travel to Ephesus to thank the goddess Diana for their good fortune. As Pericles is praying in the temple, his wife, Thaisa, recognises his voice, and collapses with shock. She is revived, and the family are reunited. We are left with the reflective, affirming words of the chorus.
This production was by Ketterer's Men, a group formed to mark the the life of Lizz Ketterer, a much loved scholar at the Shakespeare Institute. This is their third production, after Hamlet and Love's Labours Lost, and was again performed in Stratford. Founded in 1951, the Institute is part of the University of Birmingham, and is the focus for its Shakespeare research and teaching. This production thus included some postgraduate students and researchers. There was nothing amateurish about this performance, however. Indeed, it was one of the finest renditions of Shakespeare I have seen yet.
Director Will Sharp and Technical Director David Graybill highlight the sea and its role in Pericles' transformative journey; and entering the great hall was like finding oneself aboard an ancient ship. We took our seats while the downcast crew sat silently, as the deep sea splashed and crashed around them. A giant sheet at one end was used throughout as a sail; and there were moments, with the sail billowing and sea gulls calling, when we were indeed all at sea.
The acting was very good. Charlie Morton gave a refreshingly unflashy portrayal of heroism, playing Pericles with great intensity and sincerity. He really carried the lead role, highlighting the virtue, fragility and devotion of the eponymous prince. In a memorable performance, Jose A. Perez Diez played King Simonides with flair, authority and mischief. Jenny Bulcraig brought Thaisa to life in a subtle, complex way. I particularly liked how she conveyed confusion and resolve after her recovery at Ephesus. Peter Malin as the central narrator, Gower, book in hand, played a third party getting sucked into the narrative, almost to the point of despair. This was very well done, and added momentum to narrative and performance. I particularly liked David Waterman's performance as the fisherman, evoking camaraderie in unforgiving circumstances. Laura Young as Marina was superb throughout, and her playing of the reunion with her father brought me close to tears. Will Sharpe was great as the troubled, repentant Lysimachus, while Ronan Hatfull was both funny and scary as the youthful gangsta, Boult. I really wouldn't want to meet him. Perhaps the most extraordinary performance, however, came as Peter M. Smith tottered around stage in high heels and leopard skin dress as Bawd, in the memorable brothel scene (thanks, George Wilkins); and the transformation of the space into a sleazy club in Lesbos was wonderful to behold. Chris Gleeson played multiple roles very well. Cecilia Kendall White was impressive as Dionyza, and Jen Waghorn was amazing in her multivalent roles as instrumentalist and actor. Jen Waghorn, Jenny Bulcraig and Rhiannon Davies make up the folk group JennyWentAway, and on this evidence it is well worth travelling to see them.
Pericles, then, is a wonderful play. I left the Shakespeare Institute feeling like a bipolar teenager, having laughed, gasped and almost cried - all in the space of two hours. As I walked down the Stratford street, I smiled at the devotion, skill and creativity of Ketterer's men. I mean, what they did with the line, "Come, gentlemen, we sit too long on trifles" was perfect. Just perfect. Will and his fine co-author George Wilkins would also have laughed.
Well done, and thank you, to Ketterer's Men. Long may they play.
The next plays I am going to are . . .
A Winter's Tale, at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, London, 27th Feb.
The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe, Rose Theatre, London, 11th March.