Bust of Pericles. Photograph courtesy of Anthony Jauneaud / Flickr

Like many fairy tales, Shakespeare’s Pericles has a riddle at its heart. The Prince of Tyre must solve this riddle to win the hand of a beautiful princess, just as Bassiano must solve a riddle to win Portia in The Merchant of Venice. It is no spoiler to say that solving the riddle reveals that the princess’s father has enticed her into an incestuous relationship. But the real riddle in Pericles at The Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is outside of the play—in its problematic casting, criticism that ignores this problem, and the eclipsing shadow of its director, Trevor Nunn.

To put it bluntly, the incestuous king and his daughter are nonwhite, the noble Pericles, white. The murdering Dionyza (named, aptly for the drunken Dionysian women who sometimes tore victims to pieces) is dressed in black. The amoral pirate-queen of the brothel is black. Marina, the girl so pure that men refuse to sully her, is white, blond, and dressed in white. Pericles’s pristine queen, acolyte to the virgin goddess Diana, is also white and blond. Even when she is carried onstage near-death after a difficult childbirth, her pretty white nightgown shows not a spot of blood. The pure-equals-white and depraved-equals-black dichotomy is so consistent as to seem intentional. And yet there’s little in Nunn’s production that helps us read it that way.

Pericles, likely a collaboration between Shakespeare and the poet and playwright George Wilkins, is a romp ‘twixt murderers, virgins, and pirates that begs for a lighthearted reading. But there is no joy in Mudville. The legendary director Trevor Nunn has here given us a play that is neither camp nor entirely in earnest. It fails, as Susan Sontag writes in Notes on Camp, to take itself seriously (as camp must), and yet cannot be taken seriously by the audience, either. Take, for example, the sixteen-year-old Virgin Marina. When we are introduced to her she wafts around the stage, waggling her arms like nauseous swans, wearing a white dress in the Edwardian high-waisted style that implies a maternity gown just as it insists on the wearer’s virginity. The black actress playing Dionyza’s daughter has been directed to follow Marina around, copying her every silly move. The moment is compelling because, upstage, Dionyza watches her daughter pining to be Marina, perhaps pining to be white, and we can see the pain it causes her. Here is an opportunity to push back against the über-whiteness Marina symbolizes, and yet there is nothing in the play that encourages us to laugh at her (except behind our hands). On the contrary, Nunn has directed the cast and musicians to coo her name, “ahhh Marina…” seeming, like mood music, to direct the audience in the appropriate response. This gushing admiration is underscored by Gower, here a figure reminiscent of Sondheim’s narrator in Into the Woods, who describes Dionyza’s daughter trying to compete with Marina: “So / With the dove of Paphos might the crow / Vie feathers white.”

When Marina is captured by pirates and sold into a brothel we get another opportunity: to see why Marina should be so admired, other than for being beautiful, pure, and white. Shakespeare wrote himself into an exciting challenge here. Marina is so persuasive an arguer that she talks licentious men out of their lusty goals (to the horror of the brothel-keeper, who tries to convince Marina to ease her iron grip on virginity for wealth and the freedom that comes with it). Not content to have Marina do rhetorical battle for her hymen offstage, Shakespeare lets her argue in the court of the audience’s opinion, and she leads Lysimachus, a would-be client on a verbal chase. Finally she stops him with a linguistic catch-22: “If you were born to honour, show it now; / If put upon you, make the judgment good / That thought you worthy of it.” In other words, if you are honorable you will leave me the hell alone, and if you only have a reputation for honor, here’s your chance to justify people’s good opinion of you.

Nunn’s Miranda goes skittering around the stage on little cat feet,

Why, then, not play her like a kind of proto-Portia? In Merchant of Venice Portia argues in court so well she saves the life of her husband’s best friend. Her speech is one of the most oft-quoted in Shakespeare for its rhetorical power. But Nunn’s Miranda goes skittering around the stage on little cat feet, and when the brothel-keeper’s goon tries to rape her she only screams and mildly flails about—not the kind of knock-down, drag-out fight you’d expect from someone so passionate about her virtue.

It’s not that the play was bad. The reunion scene between Pericles and Marina, his lost daughter, brought tears to my eyes as no such reunion in Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, or even the tragicomic Winter’s Tale has done. My play date wrote me to say that the costumes alone have been on her mind ever since seeing the play. Those glorious pleats! And Nunn’s Pericles is at times transcendently beautiful, clever, and fun (the soldiers’ surprisingly graceful dance made me sigh with pleasure), but its tone-deafness with regard to race made it impossible to lose myself emotionally, as it lacks a critical framework that helps audiences engage with this problem intellectually. This uncertainty could be exciting, but, because it seems unintentional, it isn’t.

Theater is ephemeral. Video can’t capture the experience of live performance. Like soccer, even multiple camera angles don’t quite give you a sense of the dramatic sweep of the playing field. I once heard Paul Edmondson, Head of Learning and Research for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, compare live theater to “Michelangelo’s snowman.” Because the production quickly melts into memory, criticism, for better or worse, is often all that remains of a show. So it’s especially problematic that critics so far have ignored race in Nunn’s Pericles, except to note that Nunn is working with a “diverse company of actors” (Alexis Soloski for The New York Times). Criticism of Nunn’s Pericles focuses instead on the fact that this is his first time directing Shakespeare with an American cast for an American audience. And yet, if the American context is significant, it’s not evident from this production. Perpetuating tired tropes like the correlation of whiteness with purity does not seem fresh and exciting, just as a too-politically correct production would make the audience feel more dutiful than inspired. There have been great, recent examples of theater companies engaging with race in ways that don’t seem didactic, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black Julius Caesar, which traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of The Bridge Project. In one memorable scene Brutus’s wife, another badass woman named Portia, cuts her thigh to show that she is tough enough to keep her husband’s secrets. It shows us what a “good stoic’s daughter” can bear and helps us read her later suicide not just a tragedy but an act of defiance: she “swallows fire,” committing suicide as many (male) stoics had done rather than be made a captive.

Nunn…plays fast and loose with Shakespeare’s script, but to what end?

Charles Isherwood, writing in The New York Times, calls Pericles a kind of “variety show,” a style that, in American history, has been closely linked with Shakespeare. nineteenth-century American theaters mixed singing, dancing, and mime with their Shakespeare, even rewriting his plays to suit the times. A Yiddish rewrite of King Lear in 1892 re-contextualizes Lear’s fall from a powerful king to a blind madman whose beloved daughter dies in his arms. Around the same time, nearly three million Jews were immigrating to America, fleeing pogroms and persecution in Eastern Europe, often leaving wealth and families behind. Nunn also plays fast and loose with Shakespeare’s script, but to what end?

In a profile of Nunn for The New York Times, Alexis Soloski notes, offhandedly, that American actors are reputed to be more “feeling” and less intellectual than British actors. This criticism seems to belong more to the nineteenth century, when the superstar American actor Edwin Forrest was booed offstage for doing Shakespeare in his rough, woodsman-like accent. (And yet, it is a perhaps more “American,” naturalistic style of speaking that is popular in Shakespeare productions today.) Maybe the problems with Nunn’s Pericles can be understood in this light. If he, too, believes Americans are more feeling than thinking (and in this election season who can blame him?) he might not expect us to read his play too closely.

Theater for a New Audience’s Pericles, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, closes April 10th

Tana Wojczuk

Tana Wojczuk’s essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, Bomb, Paste, Lapham’s Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University.

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One Comment on “The Riddle of Trevor Nunn’s Pericles

  1. I haven’t seen this production, but I know the play well, and can’t really think what Susan Sontag’s texts has to do with it. Clearly, race and its symbolisms are more than decor; But there are so many absolutes here I find the review untrustworthy (and alas can’t investigate for myself.

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