The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Sea Breezes

Dragged from the archives, another 2006 review of a BBC Shakespeare...


Well, that was fun. It clearly wasn't by Shakespeare, but it was enjoyable in a melodramatic, bold, brash, popcorn blockbuster-type way. Gives an idea of the standard of other plays at the time. It's straightforward, it's obvious, it's quite fast-paced. It's a definite crowd-pleaser. It has pirates in it. But no, it's clearly not by Shakespeare.

Mainly, anyway. Because what it lacks is Shakespeare's subtlety, his humanity, his humour, and most of all, his intelligence. The characters in Pericles aren't characters at all, they are ciphers devoid of personality or depth who stand around explaining the plot to each other. Even in his most quilly-gonzales moments of knocked-off this'll-have-to-do-ness, Billy would have disguised exposition a little better than this exchange:

FISHERMAN: Why, I'll tell you, this is called Pentapolis, and our King the good Simonides.
PERICLES: The 'good' Simonides, do you call him?
FISHERMAN: Ay, sir, and he deserves so to be called for his peaceable reign and good government.

On the other hand, this makes the play easy to follow and extremely accessible. What plot there is is reiterated repeatedly for the benefit of those of diminished attention span. It feels rather modern, in a Bruce Willis movie type of way. Which would explain the gratuitous shoot-out sequence in a car-park in Act III.

Another reason why it doesn't feel like Shakespeare is the writing. Check out this sea storm metaphor:

PERICLES: A man whom both the waters and the wind, in that vast tennis-court, have made the ball

I mean, what? Being caught in a sea-storm is like being the ball in a game in ping-pong between the water and the wind? I can see what it's getting at, but at the same time the intrusively inappropriate imagery takes you further away from the point. It's clumsy. And the first four acts of this play are full of similar poetical clunkers.

In addition, there's the whole structure of the piece - it's episodic, even more than the Henry VI's, it's an odyssey (more of a road movie) with an unusually large number of locations, and correct me if I'm wrong but as the events described take place over 16 years that makes it the 'longest' play in terms of the events-described (compared to The Tempest which happens in real-time). It doesn't feel like Willy's bag at all.

So who did write the play then? According to one of my Big Books of Shakespeare, it was a chap called George Wilkins. Sounds like someone out of Revenge of the Cybermen I know, but apparently he was the hit author of The Miseries of Inforst Marriage and, all in all, rather an unsavoury character - a brothel-keeper, a pub landlord and a gangster with a reputation for violence against prostitutes (including an assault on a heavily-pregnant woman). What a charmer, eh? On the one hand, this does go some way to explain the play's complete lack of genuine emotion or empathy with any of its characters, its lack of depth. For example, in describing the death of a prostitute in childbirth:

PANDAR: The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage.
BOULT: Ay, she did quickly pooper him; she made him roast-meat for worms.

And there is the gag based on men visiting the brothel only to change their mind when confronted with the unassailable glowing virginal virtue of Marina:

SECOND GENTLEMAN: No, no. Come, I am for no more bawdy-houses: shall's go hear the vestals sing?
FIRST GENTLEMAN: I'll do any thing now that is virtuous; but I am out of the road of rutting for ever.

Speaking of rutting, there's the author's preoccupation with sex - in particular, the state of Marina's hymen.

BOULT: An if she were a thornier piece of ground than she is, she shall be ploughed.

Plus, for the kids, a joke about premature ejaculation (regarding a reaction to a description of Marina's erotic delights):

BAWD: Who, Monsieur Veroles?
BOULT Ay, he. He offered to cut a caper at the proclamation; but he made a groan at it, and swore he would see her to-morrow.

So far, so Up The Elephant and Round The Castle. But on the other hand, it seems odd that if the play is the work of George Wilkins who was himself a brothel-owner, that he would portray his profession in such an unsavoury light. It's really quite uncomfortably Irvine Welsh in places - here's a description of 'worn-out' prostitutes:

BAWD: We were never so much out of creatures. We have but poor three, and they can do no more than they can do; and they with continual action are even as good as rotten... The stuff we have, a strong wind will blow it to pieces, they are so pitifully sodden.

Lovely, eh? All in all, the first four acts of play speak of someone with no talent whatsoever 'trying their hand' at playwriting, someone who finds prostitution a ripe subject for humour, and who has no real idea how to write dialogue, or create character, or plot. The 'sea' is thematically central to the play, but it seems more a plot convenience than anything else; transporting characters from location to location, and then it delivers Pericles his armour, and later that it delivers Thaisa to the one man who can save her life. Plus on top of that you have the massive coincidences and a literal deus ex machina required for the various reunions to take place. In addition, there are huge, belief-destroying gaps in the logic. Which I will probably mention in the synopsis.

But, on the other hand, it has pirates in it. ARRH!

And there's act 5, where Shakespeare takes over. Now, the whole question of attribution is something of a baked potato - like a hot potato, but over-done - and crediting Shakespeare with writing Pericles is rather like, oh, crediting Russell T Davies with writing REDACTED. Stratford Billy's contribution seems to consist of the scene where Marina is reunited with her father (which is, quite frankly, a beautiful piece of work, rich in emotion, joy and all the best sort of tear-jerky business, as the not-daring-to-believe disbelief of both parties is built up until the moment of truth) and possibly the scene where Marina convinces Boult she’d be better placed working as a pop singer than as a prostitute - her insults are unusually colourful and her argument is unusually cogent in a play where, otherwise, things just happen for no good reason.

Before I kick off with the synopsis - what about famous phrases from Pericles: Prince of Tyre? There are no famous phrases in Pericles: Prince of Tyre. Word coinage? Countless, full-grown, pageantry and possibly shipwrecked. Not that impressive.

So, what happens? Well, for all anyone would know any better, I could say the play was about the f*cking wombles, because nobody knows what happens in Pericles: Prince of Tyre, do they? Haha! Until now, that is! Hurrah!


Our story is narrated by the 14th century poet John Gower. Not sure why. He's a boring old fart. His narration is also annoying - half the time he's just saying what's happened in the previous scene, or what is going to happen in the next scene - and the other half of the time he's describing stuff which is really exciting but not in the play. Git.

The tale concerns Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Tyre, as we all know from the news, is a town somewhere down eastward way. However, our story doesn't open in Tyre. It opens in Antiochus, the kingdom of King Antioch. Some Mediterranean island, probably. Pericles has come to try to win the hand of marriage of the King's un-named daughter. To do this, he has to correctly solve a riddle - like on 3-2-1. I wonder if you can solve it. Here goes:

"On mother's flesh which did me breed,
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father:
He's father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.
A blackbird sings on bluebird hill
Thanks to the calling of the wild
Wise men's child."

Yes, you've guessed it. The King of Antioch is shagging his daughter. She has the hots for him and he has the hots for her. And, for reasons best known to himself, the King of Antioch has WRITTEN THIS DOWN AS A POEM and is showing it to prospective sons-in-law as some sort of 'eligibility' test.

There. That gives you some idea of a) the complete lack of taste and b) the complete lack of logic.

Pericles is a bit ickied out by the whole thing - as you would be - and decides to bugger off back to Tyre. The King of Antioch takes offence at this, and despatches an assassin, Thaliard, to kill Pericles.

(He’s not just the King of Antioch’s Mr Thaliard. He’s everybody’s Mr Thaliard)

Back in Tyre, Pericles tells his chum, the acting governor of Tyre, Helicanus, what's happened. For reasons known only to himself, Pericles spontaneously decides to go an ocean cruise at this point. Thaliard arrives in Tyre to discover Pericles gone and decides that Pericles will probably die at sea.

Pericles arrives on the island of Tarsus where the governors Cleon and his wife Dionyza are having trouble with the catering. Famine has hit the island. However, Pericles has brought a picnic and so he makes himself popular.


Pericles leaves Tarsus, but his boat gets caught in a storm and all the crew are tossed overboard, save Pericles who is washed up on the shore of Pentapolis. There he is saved by three fishermen, who tell him all about the local big-shot Simonides and his oh-so eligible daughter, Thaisa. Rather than her husband being chosen on the basis of riddles her fate will be decided by a jousting contest. Pausing only to pick up his armour (which has been conveniently washed ashore), and thank the fisherman and promise to never forget them, Pericles buggers off. Of course, he does forget the fishermen and never returns and indeed they are not heard of again.

Back in Tyre, Helicanus gets word that naughty Antiochus and his daughter have been killed by a strike of lightning, c/o the gods of family values, probably. So that's them out of the play! With Pericles absent, believed dead, the people of Tyre want Helicanus as their king. He persuades them to wait twelve months, and if Pericles ain't back, then reluctantly he will step into his sandals, so to speak.

Meanwhile at Pentapolis, Thaisa falls in love with Pericles (not realising he is a prince, merely thinking him a bloke who smells of fish). Her father, Simonides, sends the other suitors away, fobbing them off with some story about Thaisa wanting to remain intacta for the next year. He then tests Pericles’ eligibility by questioning his honour and, satisfied, gives his blessing to their marriage. They get hitched and Simonides’ instructs them:

SIMONIDES: It pleaseth me so well, that I will see you wed; And then with what haste you can get you to bed.

No subtlety here, no sir.


About a year later, and Pericles hears news from Tyre about the whole '12-month deadline' and decides to set off home with his wife Thaisa, who is, by, now, pregnant (the whole getting themselves to bed with haste thing having paid off). At this point, I think, the people of Pentapolis and Thaisa realise about the whole Pericles-being-King-of-Tyre thing, but as it's all related in John Gower's narration, it's not at all clear. Nor is the whole Prince-of-Tyre becoming the King-of-Tyre thing, as we don't hear anything about Pericles' father dying.

Anyway, despite appearances to the contrary, the Mediterranean is a tricky old fishpond and Pericles' boat gets caught in another tempest. Things look decidedly iffy, and Thaisa dies in childbirth. Pericles names the baby 'Marina' because she was born at sea - or conceived in a harbour, possibly - and, like all proud fathers, he gives the instruction for the corpse of his wife to be ceremonially thrown overboard in a waterproof coffin.

Said coffin washes up on the shore of Ephesus.

Meanwhile Pericles' boat eventually arrives at Tarsus, where Pericles is reunited with the lovely couple Cleon and his wife Dionyza. For reasons inexplicable he hands over his newlyborn daughter to them for them to bring up. He also vows never to cut his hair until his daughter is married. He's an inveterate vower, that Pericles.

Cleon swears to look after Marina. Cleon swears to do things at various points in the play, and it's quite amusing because he just lists a load of bad things that should happen should he ever break his vow. Which he won't.

Back at Ephesus the coffin is carried into the house of Cerimon, a top doctor. Throwing caution to the wind and with a dare-devil cry of 'Quarantine? Shmoratine!' Cerimon prises open the coffin lid and declares that Thaisa isn't dead, she's merely pining. A quick rub of the old magic ointment and Thaisa is resurrected From Beyond The Grave. Believing her husband Pericles to be dead - and not at all sure about what has happened to her baby - Thaisa decides to live the life of a nun and buggers off to the Ephesus Temple of Diana, Princess of Hearts.

Act IV

14 - or possibly 16 - years later, and the babe Marina has grown up into of a babe. However her general hotness is rather overshadowing the plain-jane-ness of Hight Philoten, the daughter of Cleon and Dionyza. Dionyza, who is now a boo-hiss personification of womanhood gone evil, decides that perhaps it would be better if Marina was dead. Then, without the competition safely out of the way, Hight Philoten would indeed be High Falutin'. GREAT GAG.

Dionyza hires an assassin, Leonine. The first eight Leos just weren't good enough, it seems. Leonine can't quite bring himself to do the deed, however, because Marina is just so damn girly and sweet. At this point, however


arrive and drag Marina off to their boat. 'Hey nonny ho', thinks Leonine, 'I can just tell Dionyza I pushed Marina off a cliff, and no-one need ever be the wiser!'. So, after first checking that the pirates are definitely kidnapping Marina and not just gang-raping her, he saunters back inland with a skip, a smile, and whistling a merry tune.

The pirates sell Marina into prostitution (for a thousand gold pieces). It transpires that the number one brothel in Mytilene has been having a bit of whore trouble, their whores having got all whored out with all the whoring. Boult, a sordid little brothel-teaboy, starts an advertising campaign; 'New girl in, guaranteed cherry, first go to the highest bidder'. However his plan backfires when it turns out that Marina is like Julie Andrews, and no man can dream of doing the naughty with her. Even Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, can't bring himself to do the deed. Instead he falls in love with her, because, you know, she's like Julie Andrews.

Boult decides the time has come to break-in the new girl himself, but just as he is about to plough the old furrow, Marina convinces him that the brothel would get more money of her if she embarked on a singing career.

Meanwhile, a rather hirsute Pericles has now returned to Tarsus to see his daughter only to learn from the wicked Dionyza and the hen-pecked Cleon that Marina is no more. They even show him her tomb to prove it. Pericles is grief stricken and vows never to wash his face or trim his beard again. Hygiene and personal grooming is for quitters.

Act V

Another act, another bloody tempest of plot contrivance, and this time Pericles' ship is blown to Mytilene. The local governor hears that Pericles is feeling down, and suggests a way of cheering him up - there's this girl, you see, who has been wowing the people of Mytilene with her singing. By now Pericles has grown a really big beard and is absolutely filthy and won't speak, so his friend Helicanus agrees to the governor’s plan on his behalf.

Cue a lovely scene by Shakespeare where Marina sings to Pericles, and they are restored to each other. Ahhh!

It's been a long day for Pericles, and he can hear the 'music of the spheres', so he decides to have a little nap. During his nap who should appear in a vision but the Goddess Diana, telling him to hotfoot it to her temple at Epheseus tout suite. Pausing only to give Lysimachus his blessing to marry Marina, they set sail.

(Note: now that Marina is due to get married, this means that Pericles can have a change of clothes and wash and shave again, which I suspect is a bit of a relief to all his shipmates)

They arrive at Epheseus. Pericles is reunited with his wife, who he thought was dead, and she is reunited with her husband who she thought was dead, and her daughter, who she thought was dead, and their daughter is reunited with her mother, who she thought was dead. Basically everyone thought everyone else was dead, but they were wrong, it's good news and tearful reunions all round.

And, best of all, it means that Pericles can now get a haircut!

Meanwhile it transpires that the people of Tarsus have heard on the grapevine about Dionyza and Cleon's wickedness and have set fire to their house with them in it. It's nice when things are tidied up like that.

So there you have it - the play with everything; incest, piracy, prostitution and hair-dressing.

Of course, it's a bit difficult to judge this play because it's based on a 'dodgy' folio and George Wilkins' novelisation The Painful Adventures of Pericles. I'm not making that up to be amusing, by the way, that's the actual title. So it's possible that the dialogue has been truncated or misquoted. But I did enjoy it quite a lot; it was mindless fun, and I can understand why it was so massively popular in its day. Like a modern sci-fi blockbuster - and 'romances' and voyages to exotic climes would, in Shakespeare's day, have been the equivalent of our space opera or sci-fi. Of which more when I get to The Tempest, of course...

I'm not sure about how to Shakespearewatch the other apocrypha/co-writes/script-doctoring assignments. The BBC did Henry VIII, so I'll do that one, yes, but they didn't do the others and I'm not sure I can be arsed to read Edward III or Sir Thomas More or The Two Noble Kinsmen. I'll see how I feel. Don't pressure me.


Ooh, I should just mention the BBC production. It's mainly populated with the usual suspects - I don't mean Kevin Spacey and Stephen Baldwin, I mean the usual people who have been turning up in these BBC productions. However the highlight for me was a 25-year-old Amanda Redman. Oh, I definitely would.

Anyway, that's my review. But here's what Tom Baker look-alike Ben Jonson thought:

...No doubt some mouldy tale, like Pericles; and stale as the Shrieves crusts, and nasty as his fish-scraps, out every dish, throwne forth, and rak't into the common tub, may keepe up the Play-club. Two stars!

Miserable sod.

Next up: Hello, who's that? It's Ant on deck! And Cleo too... in for them, in for them, they've all got it in for them...

1 comment:

  1. Yet another one I must revisit at some point. When I was working my way through the canon in 2005 I ended up with the Radio 3 production from 2005 which has Benjamin Zephaniah as Gower and pre-Who Adjoa Andoh as Dionyza. Reading along with the text I was surprised at just how quickly the upswing in quality of the poetry is in the later Acts as the lines suddenly gain excesses of meaning and in the reading Zephaniah is suddenly overtaken with a sense of what sounds like renewed energy as though he's noticed too. If ever you need to explain to people why Shakespeare's great, Pericles is a good expression of it.