The Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre

William Shakespeare
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario
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Deborah Hay as Marina and Evan Buliung as Pericles Credit: David Hou
The Company of Pericles Credit: David Hou
Evan Buliung as Pericles and The Company of Pericles Credit: David Hou

The Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and sometimes known as (and I am not making this up) The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is nobody’s favourite Shakespeare play; but it can be successfully revived.

It’s so bad, it’s generally thought that somebody else (George Wilkins?) must have written the first two acts. The second half has the good stuff. Ben Jonson said it was 'a mouldy play'; but then he would, wouldn’t he, his latest play having just flopped?

Scott Wentworth’s production, with Evan Buliung in the lead role, premièred in 2015 at The Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario in 2015 and can be seen online. Production values are high and the standard of acting throughout the Canadian ensemble is higher than at the RSC.

The story is a picaresque romance set in the ancient world. The characters go on a fantastic Mediterranean cruise, visiting Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene; absolutely perfect for those who have been self-quarantining and want to get out and go far away. The itinerary includes incest, plague, jousting, dancing, shipwreck, pirates, abduction, near-rape, prostitution, and, of course, a happy ending.

The story is also a spiritual journey, a Christian parable of birth, death and resurrection, full of Biblical echoes and Christian virtues, such as chivalry, generosity, courtesy, truth, loyalty, charity and justice. One day somebody will turn Pericles into a spectacular Broadway musical with an exclamation mark after his name! There’s so much opportunity for music, singing, dancing, lavish scenery and costumes and spectacular effects.

Scott Wentworth sets his production in the Victorian era which suits the play very well. Acted out on a thrust stage by a fine ensemble, the whole performance feels like a Victorian charade.

Thaisa, Pericles’s wife, dies at sea during a terrible storm giving birth to a daughter; but she is not dead and later wakes, in one of the most moving scenes in the play, to find herself washed ashore in a coffin and magically coming back to life.

Marina, Pericles’s daughter, famous for her virginity and moral steadfastness, is about to be murdered when she is abducted by pirates and sold to a brothel. Victorian theatregoers loved melodrama. Victorian moralists loved Marina’s virginal fencing with the wicked and the triumph of virtue over sin.

Deborah Hay, looking as if she has stepped out of a Victorian painting preaching morality, is the embodiment of Virtue with a capital V. The moving reunion between her and her father, second only to King Lear’s reunion with Cordelia, is played by Evan Buliung not only for pathos, but also, most unexpectedly, for delightful humour.

There is also a very funny scene in a brothel. Marina’s moral steadfastness is such that she converts the entire clientele to celibacy and bankrupts the establishment.

I am always surprised how much of the time Pericles spends offstage in the dressing room. Marina becomes the lead role in this instance because Deborah Hay (and this is a nice touch) also plays Thaisa.

Gower, who acts as chorus, must be the most boring role in all of Shakespeare. The good news is Wentworth has taken all his lines away from him and spread them around the cast. Gower never appears.

Wentworth’s production, intelligent, accessible and cleverly staged, is, with its mime and additional songs and singing, very enjoyable.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch