Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not a Shakespearean play that is staged often. It is incredibly complicated with fast location changes and the story passes through decades. It also includes a mixture of plotlines found within other Shakespeare stories such as pirates, reuniting families, bringing back someone thought to be dead … It’s a big melting pot of different plotlines. The complexity of the plot is what makes it a big task to make sense of.
Scott Wentworth was the director for this production titled The Adventures of Pericles. I have seen him act in many plays years over the years from Banquo to Shylock but this was my first time seeing a show he has directed so I was excited. I think the strongest element throughout the show was the double (triple?) casting of Antiochus’ daughter, Thaisa, and Marina. They are all played by the ever charming Deborah Hay who travels through these women’s stories to teach us about their individual strength.
The story becomes about these three women – one representing lack of choice (as Antiochus’ daughter is forced into an incestuous relationship with her father), one representing the ability to choose (Thaisa tells her father she will marry Pericles despite his concerns about his lineage), and one representing the need to fight for choice (Marina who is imprisoned in a brothel and must use her intellect to ensure her safety and freedom). They provide an anchor to the sometimes hectic storyline.
Pericles can easily be painted as a story about good people being rewarded and bad people being punished but Wentworth’s interpretation creates a more complex message about freedom. Antiochus’ daughter cannot be considered free – so does that mean she deserves punishment for the ‘sin’ she participates in?
Much of this production focuses on those gray areas and attempts to make our world less black and white. I think the frustrating thing about Pericles is that much of the plots mirror each other. But Wentworth takes hold of this and uses it as a device to discuss our relationship to life. There is light and there is dark. The Antiochus scenes are shadowy and filled with dreams and spirits as opposed to the scenes with Simonides (Thaisa’s father) where there is brightness and laughter and warmth. This is an obvious example of the mirroring within the plot of Pericles.
The plot is not so simple though and the mirroring becomes more complex as we move through the story with the women. One of the more complicated moments in the story is when Marina is forced into prostitution and the themes of honour versus sin clash. Shakespeare allows Marina to have some agency by convincing potential sex partners to stop themselves from taking her virginity by questioning their own honour. She forces them to recognize their own sin and as stated earlier in the play “few love to hear the sins they love to act.” They are in a brothel and having a conversation about honour and virtue because of the determination of Marina. She uses the resources she has to combat the misogyny and fear of sexual abuse that she is being presented with in order to protect herself.
I’m going to go backwards for a moment. Following Thaisa being saved from the ocean and Marina as a child separated from her mother, Wentworth places mother and daughter on opposite sides of the side and both seated at a bench. It really made me think about the people in Pericles who are alone and not alone. Many of the characters throughout are with other characters but separated from their family or those important to them. But once again Wentworth chooses to highlight the women and their separation from each other.
The story is riddled with adventure or extraordinary circumstances or extreme suffering but in the end loneliness is spread throughout Pericles. The ending would not be nearly as impactful if the characters were reunited without each of their backstories. Each of them suffer by themselves so being reunited becomes a relief to the audience after experiencing their trauma with them.
Another element which Wentworth played with was having the narrator role of Gower be played by the Marion Adler who would be revealed as Thasia in the temple. Instead of having the goddess Diana appear to Pericles in his dream, Thasia appears to Pericles (who of course does not realize that it is his wife since he assumes she is dead still). Adler along with Hay become central forces propelling the female spirit forward. In fact, this production I would argue is not about Pericles at all. Evan Buliung is great as the humble adventurer but Wentworth structured this Pericles about the strength of women. Pericles runs away from most of his pain but Marina and Thasia and many other females in this story are forced to suffer and push through and eventually conquer the trials of their life.
I struggle with Pericles because from the outside this fantastical tale is full of adventure and follows an exciting but tragic plotline. But I often find the characters themselves lackluster. Pericles is not a hero like Hamlet or Macbeth where you travel along with their thoughts as the action happens. It is hard to connect to a storyline where the characters rarely connect to their own emotions. The story also moves so quickly that you often do not have the time to really feel for the characters and their struggle. But Wentworth pushes the women of the story to the forefront and the audience follows one actress as she travels through several different women’s stories. It is impossible to forget each of the women because the same woman becomes the face for them all. This Pericles transformed into a story about the enduring female spirit and its ability to withstand a world working against it.