Video Review: Pericles, BBC, 1984

In 1984, as part of the seventh and final season of its Collected Works series, the BBC broadcast its version of Pericles, directed by David Jones, who had done The Merry Wives of Windsor in Season Five (that phrasing would have been better if this was the “bawdy” post). This play, like Timon of Athens, last time around, was one of the handful the BBC had never adapted for the screen.

BBC Collected Works: Pericles
BBC Collected Works: Pericles

Mike Gwilym stars as Pericles (he would be seen again in that season’s Love’s Labor’s Lost as Berowne). And he does a very good job, in a role that is made difficult in the second half of the play as he becomes hairier and unkempt. Gwilym is able to overcome this, though, especially in the boat reunion with Marina. There are other faces that we’ve seen before in the series, though the one that stands out is one that does not appear in any other BBC Collected Works production. As Thaisa, Jones cast stage actress Juliet Stevenson (who is probably best known in this country for her role in Truly, Madly, Deeply). In a pretty much thankless role, she makes the most of it, especially in the interplay with her father, played by Patrick Allen.

While this is still the BBC, the design doesn’t feel as faux-Elizabethan as past productions have; the dress is still not ancient or in any kind of directorial conceptual time frame, but with less adorned dress, it just doesn’t feel as men-in-tight-like. Also, when the film opens, the exterior beach/desert scene where we meet Gower feels more realistic and less like a soundstage than past productions have. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a location shoot, but it does feel more real.

Jones maintains the dumbshows for Gower when they’re called for, and when not, sometimes he’ll use a lap dissolve to fade Gower’s face out into the action he’s describing. It’s actually a nice touch. As are the skulls on spikes in Antioch, and the huge net that dragged up onto the beach with Pericles’ armor. And I liked how Jones allows characters to deliver their asides in tight close-ups, while keeping Pericles’ soliloquies more externalized, with less fourth-wall breakage.

Now, the key to these late romances, these tragicomedies, for me at least, is the emotional impact the reunion/resolution brings. And Jones does not disappoint. The Pericles/Marina reveal is nicely done, very emotional; the father/mother/daughter reunion is good, but not quite as powerful as the father/daughter (of course, that may have more to do with the script than the direction).

The problem here is the pacing. Pericles is the fourth-shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. There is no reason why this needs to run nearly three hours. Seriously. We get dances, and dumbshows, and more dances. It just drags.

And that’s a shame when there’s so much to recommend this. I really do like Gwilym’s performance, especially in that final act. The Bawd scenes walk a fine line between being “naughty” and terrifying (there were moments where I thought they were going to go off-script and let Boult actually rape Marina). There’s that fun interplay between king and princess in Pentapolis.

But as this is the only video version of the play I’ve found, there’s really no choice if you want to see Pericles, this is it…

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