pericles bell shakespeareDusting off a dubious, rather maligned play like Pericles is a bold choice for any company.

But rather than pretend this is the bard at his best, Bell Shakespeare has chosen to embrace the play, warts and all – almost deliberately and affectionately exposing its flaws.

In the program notes, director John Bell tells us that most historians don’t even think Shakespeare had much to do with the first couple of Acts of Pericles but was instead called in to fix things up and give it a decent ending when the original writer, George Wilkins, either ran out of ideas or was put in jail.

But whatever the truth, the great thing about staging a lesser work is that it gives the audience something to compare the great Shakespearean tragedies and comedies against.

For unlike his best plays, here the craft of playwriting is laid bare. The plot is disjointed, the characters strangely underdeveloped and the whole thing has a kind of insubstantial, unbelievable, fairytale quality.

The plot centres on Greek hero, Prince Pericles (Marcus Graham), who certainly suffers more than his fair share of misfortune. The first woman he desires turns out to be sleeping with her father, and after he learns this Pericles is forced to go on the run. Then he is shipwrecked and marries Thaisa (Lexi Freiman), the daughter of the King of Pentapolis, only to lose her in childbirth at sea.

Finally his daughter Marisa (Andrea Demetriades), who he thought was growing up in safe hands, is almost murdered, then kidnapped and forced into a brothel. Even expert TV soap writers couldn’t fit that much into one season, let alone one script.

It’s certainly a rollicking journey and this is where the production’s real trump card comes into play, in the form of Japanese-inspired drumming ensemble, Taikoz.

The deep resonance of the drums and the haunting sound of the shakuhachi flute add an air of mystery, symmetry and (let’s face it) dignity to Pericles’ many misadventures – at different times representing a call to arms, a lashing storm or sometimes just a quiet lament to the cruel twists of fate.

Pericles’ story is ably led by narrator, John Gaden, who is our one constant in a frenzy of scene changes, and he pitches the part brilliantly, easily winning the audience over and injecting lightness and whimsy wherever he can.

Gaden also slips in and out of different characters throughout the play, including good King Simonides, and each time it is with easy, natural authority and deft playfulness with the text. His scenes as Simonides – with a delightfully oversized turban – are wonderfully played.

Alongside the more seasoned Gaden, Marcus Graham struggles at times to bring Pericles to three-dimensional life. His early scenes are forced and stately, which is partly acceptable for a courtly price but not entirely. However, when he loosens up in later scenes his natural charm and humour starts to shine through.

As Pericles’ unfortunate wife, Lexi Freiman gives a simple, gentle performance while Andrea Demetriades is instantly engaging as the pure, serenely accomplished Marisa.

There are many other light-hearted moments too including a very entertaining take on the brothel scenes, where the cast have a lot of cheeky, slapstick fun.

Julie Lynch’s set and costume design has an ethereal East-meets-West aesthetic that adds to the storybook charm of the production and meshes perfectly with Taikoz.

Although you may not be quoting excerpts from the soliloquies in this play, you’ll still go away feeling pretty satisfied.

Until August 22. Bookings: .

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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