Brighton Year-Round 2022
Adapted and Directed by Kelly Hunter, Designer Alice Hallifax, Lighting Craig West, Music Mercedes Marcesa, Choreography Juan Sanchez Plaza, Company Stage Manager Carina Torres
Two performances, one for autistic children using a unique Heartbeat method; one for us more neuro-typical folk. So summarised, you mightn’t expect this to be the finest Pericles of recent years. It is.
But then you might guess it’s Kelly Hunter and Flute Theatre who bring Pericles to The Old Market, Brighton on the final leg of their tour that started in Bulgaria, performed in Russian for Ukrainian refugees, and recently reaching London.
Flute’s working with the St John’s School and College a further day. There’s enough on the company website to give you a flavour of what Flute do to this ‘Pattern of Painful Adventures’ – the original of Shakespeare’s tale. Which he didn’t start seriously till his collaborator Captain Wilkins left off, at the end of Act Two.
Which is why we seldom see the play that started Shakespeare’s final Romance phase, in 1608, culminating in The Tempest. Yet these last three acts are some of the most wondrous in Shakespeare: thematically complex with themes of apparent loss, decades’ separation of a father, mother and daughter, (presaging The Winter’s Tale, harking back to The Comedy of Errors), false accusation and flight (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and reconciliation.
Hunter, also adaptor, does the right thing: cuts much of the tedious wanderings of the first two acts, though also the lines from the sympathetic princess inured to her father’s incest. She keeps the gist and there’s another reason this production succeeds so brilliantly: music, here thematically retrofitted with the choreography keeping it airborne. It’s so pervasive, and so beautifully executed, that it adds a charge to the romance and allows the plot to unfold far less jerkily, and disparately, than it can do. In a real sense it completes the play.
The entire first act is Pericles’ guessing this princess-winning riddle, which is death to fail yet death to divulge. Here Joshua Welch who does something special with the title-role confronts the pair as opposed to soliloquising. This slightly damages a succeeding speech reporting his asking no questions, but hardly weighs. Welch has the rationale of a generous, quick-thinking but ultimately emotional being. We see him usually less as Prince, more afflicted subject. Welch though conveys at once courtly lover, the distractedly bereft and the joyous. I’ve not seen one Pericles who manages all that till now. Usually melancholy suffuses and subdues everything.
Prophesying the Romances, the greatest scene of all is in Act Five, where a daughter wakes a father to celestial music. The whole production’s instrumented to music by Mercedes Marcesa (joined by Catherine Kay as singer and others), and an Act Two wedding Scene – light in itself – is freighted with a joyous dance – choreography by cast member Juan Sanchez Plaza. It also means we invest in his sly Prospero-testing father Cerimon and his daughter Thaisa (also her daughter Marina) Natasha Haward.
Thaisa in Haward’s hands becomes shyly ardent, then sexy – she can’t keep her hands off Welch’s Pericles – and finally heartrendingly desolate when presumed dead and waking in a foreign land. Everything in Flute’s Pericles is larger than life, the emotions explosive but always to scale, and the actors inhabiting a truth often emerging from dance or storytelling to etch memorable scenes.
The Act Two courtship’s a little like Miranda and Ferdinand. Since Thaisa’s snatched away it’s not only a joyous physical answer to thinner language (but not plot), it anchors Haward’s Thaisa as distinct from her even more fraught daughter.
There’s unique features too. Gower the 14th century poet invoked as storyteller – who markedly improves from Act III – speeds Pericles over bumps and joins as the titular hero either flees, migrates or wanders aimlessly, rejecting one marriage which would mean his death, finding and losing a wife and all his men, and so on.
More insistent than his brief successor Time in The Winter’s Tale, more a character, Gower – played by commanding confiding Charlie Archer in only the chief of his roles (he’s also Tarsus ruler Cleon, pirate a murderer, brothel enforcer and so on) – has to navigate crudely inverted, faux-antique verse to start with (bar one last couplet, surely touched in by Shakespeare), then more complex deliveries.
There’s also summary executions for some characters that always come harsh – sometimes unfairly too – on the themes of reconciliation. It’s as though Shakespeare – and Wilkins – didn’t know how to integrate the diaspora of abandoned plots humanely. I’m glad they’re shorn. It gives what we have more unity.
There’s huge scope for several actors. From evil king Sergio Maggiolo, often a superb dancer (he comically gyrates all the rival suitors in Act Two) morphs into wise Simonides who with Sanchez Plaza and Archer restore Thaisa who, apparently a widow, decides on a Diana hermitage.
The plot’s three storylines could easily fracture, but two are suspended and focus on Marina’s. Haward has to move from skipping innocence to an eloquence rather close to Aspasia, someone whose powers of persuasion are near-miraculous, as well as sing. Again, there’s a truthfulness here, allowing the outrages felt to be voiced in something near tragic intensity.
With new-born Marina left in the care of those with cause to be grateful, Pericles disappears for a time. Archer’s querulous Cleon, Tarsus’ ruler whose country was succoured by Pericles earlier, is trounced by his jealous wife Dionyza (Oliver McLellan) who plots Marina’s murder since she outdoes their daughter (Paula Rodriguez takes this part as well as Nurse Lychorida). Archer morphs from Cleon to murder Leonine (a particularly intense exchange here with Haward), pirate and Pander. Rodriguez relishes her Bawd role, as Sanchez Plaza relishes his – the leering one caught out. McLellan as client-turned-suitor Governor Lysimachus who hosts Pericles’ wandering barque, rounds the play to its miraculous ends.
Haward and Welch are magnificent here: Welsch’s querulous outbursts threaten to disrupt the music wrought by Haward and the musical team: the text shows how disruptive it could be. Everything for once is expressed, not in a rapt calm, but in the passion of recognition. It’s heart-stopping and truthful.
As is the reunion with Thaisa after, Welch and Haward wringing fullness from a scene so often a pendant.
Designer Alice Hallifax hangs silks to adorn a swept set, actors and musicians arrayed each side. Costumes and floating chiffons, a baby of lentils and a water-bottle to exploit Pericles’ extremes of shipwreck, are suffused in Craig West’s memorable lighting. West’s flair for backlighting and slant provokes magic.
Hunter’s team have wrought a miracle of flight from a play too often limed in its first two acts, and seen as disparate, occasionally bloodless save in its great scenes. The comedy – particularly brothel-scenes – is played to the hilt, but with the ever-present fright of Marina’s violation rendering it very different from the one in Measure for Measure (in part Middleton’s anyway). Most, though is the sheer presence of these characters, realised by an outstanding cast who here at least, make us rank Pericles with Shakespeare’s other late Romances.