Written by: William Shakespeare
Adapted by: Kelly Hunter
Performed by: Flute Theatre
With minimal scenery and props the eight members of Flute Theatre bring to life here a story of shipwreck, kidnap, estrangement and reunion. Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays so it’s a bold choice, especially with a small company like this. When an audience is less familiar with the story of the play, there’s the potential to confuse, but this performance is an assured masterclass in economic, communicative theatre.
It helps perhaps that the play itself has a storytelling guide built into it. The character, John Gower – a real-life contemporary of Chaucer, whose work provided the source material for the story – introduces the action and returns throughout to keep us abreast of what’s going on. He’s a rather po-faced presenter, a poet, punctuating a story that bounces around place and time following the ups and downs of a hero buffeted around on a tumultuous course that seems mostly in the hands of the gods – and in particular, Neptune.
In an attempt to win the hand of the daughter of Antiochus, King of Antioch, Pericles finds himself in trouble. Deciphering the incestuous undertones of an unwinnable riddle set by the king, he narrowly escapes a death sentence and slips away, fleeing the city in disgust. Fearing for his life, he returns to his home of Tyre and from there sets sail to keep his distance from the wrathful king.
Flute Theatre’s Pericles is played as a floppy-fringed posh boy with no experience of the world, who is being hit with a dose of cruel reality. When his ship is wrecked he is left with barely a stitch of clothing, washed up on the shore. Reduced to sudden poverty, relying on the kindness of strangers in a foreign land, he has become an impotent protagonist in an absurd world, without agency, a poor plaything for the gods. This transformation is performed with wide-eyed desperation, an upper class lord standing in his pants, having to start from scratch.
Luckily, Pericles’ suit of armour is washed up on the shore and in a reprisal of his quest in the opening scene, he finds himself entering a tournament to win the hand of Thaisa, the daughter of Simonides, King of Pentapolis. It’s clear we’re in a play here whose narrative logic is to a great extent reliant on the kind of cosmic coincidence prevalent in ancient myths, stories where you can imagine the gods on their thrones in the clouds moving around the tiny humans like pieces in a game of toy soldiers. This leaves the play less apt for a naturalistic adaptation or modern update, but Flute Theatre’s approach to stage it as a magical, flowing piece of chamber theatre is wholly successful.
The members of the troupe are either taking part in the action as characters or sitting to the side as stationary onlookers or musicians. With singing bowls, drums, mandolin, melodica and flute, the accompaniment is atmospheric, underscoring most of the action. Dance is also skillfully incorporated. In the scene where Pericles attempts to win the hand of Thaisa, the other suitors are all played by one performer who acts out their shows of strength as a series of headstands and contortions, all of which fail to move the princess but from an audience point of view it’s a stunning display of physicality. Dance scenes later on in the play show these are not just actors doing a bit of dancing and music but a group with an array of honed skills.
Pericles marries Thaisa and they have a daughter together, Marina, who is born at sea. Thaisa apparently dies in childbirth and is cast overboard to appease a storm. Marina is left with Cleon, governor of Tarsus and his wife, Dionyza, to look after but they plan to murder her because she grows up to become more beautiful than their own daughter. Before they can kill her though, she is kidnapped by pirates and sent to a brothel.
The drama of this production is more plot-driven than many a Shakespeare play, with the characters in service to the action rather than the plot acting as a vehicle for extended iambic exploration of the human condition. This is partly a result of the truncation of the play here into a tidy 75 minutes. However, there are moments that focus more on the psychology of the characters, showcasing some powerful acting: the prevaricating of Cleon and Dionyza about whether or not to murder Marina; Marina’s heartrending pleas to her pirate captors; and then later the reunion of Pericles with his daughter and wife (who it turns out survived being thrown overboard). Pericles has become a broken man, and though it is all slightly ridiculous and again absurdly coincidental, his reversal of fortune is heartening and the play ends in an ecstasy of joy and dancing.
It’s a rather sombre, soulful production. The tendency can be to ramp up any opportunity for comedy in a Shakespeare play, but the boldness to let the drama speak for itself here is commendable, resulting in a controlled piece that is at times moving and consistently lyrical.
Running until 26 May 2023