Review: Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Few love to hear the sins they love to act”

A New Year, a new chance for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a venue that critics love to describe as beautifully atmospheric because they’ve never had to sit anywhere apart from the good seats that press agents put them in. For it is a difficult theatre for the regular theatregoer – recreating as it does the candlelit ambience of a 17th century indoor playhouse, it also has that (possibly) Jacobean feature of premium seating at over £60 a pop. At the other end of the scale, £10 standing spots are available in the upper gallery but there, one has to deal with considerably restricted views. 

As a result, it’s thus been a theatre I’ve easily decided not to frequent that often – the levels of discomfort in the backless seats not endearing me much either – but the lure of the last Shakespeare play I’ve yet to see in Pericles and Rachael Stirling, John Light and Niamh Cusack in The Winter’s Tale has tempted me to bite the bullet. That said, I will be unflinchingly honest about the experiences, as it is a theatre where you want to be forearmed with as much knowledge as possible. For reference, I saw Pericles from standing spot D32 in the upper gallery. 

You’re advised that the view is restricted “due to position and candelabra”. The candelabras weren’t too much of an issue but you miss out on a good half of the stage no matter how you twist and turn, and anything that happened in the pit or around the lower gallery is also out of view – there was a section of shenanigans that made people laugh of which I saw nothing. You’re also very much at the mercy of the three rows of people in front leaning forward, which further restricts sightlines, especially as they’re often dodging pillars themselves.

So whilst it is a comparative bargain at £10, there are big issues to consider when booking tickets in this area. There is no doubting that the space is indeed highly atmospheric – the opening of Dominic Dromgoole’s production sees an effective black-out as all the candles are extinguished, and the gradual re-illumination is beautifully done. And the striking way in which the seafaring of the plot is achieved through Jonathan Fensom’s design is ingenious with its sails and ropes, you really do get a good sense of that from the upper level. 

But I missed quite a bit of the acting, too few actors acknowledged the gods – or perhaps it wasn’t appropriate for them to speak out and up – and so it was often a challenge to follow what was going on, especially in a play that wasn’t familiar to me. Sheila Reid’s Chorus-like Gower was an interesting innovation, especially in a venue not known for much gender-swapping (here’s hoping Emma Rice has something to say about that) and James Garnon’s Pericles tracked an engaging journey of redemptive sorrow. But I can’t see myself going back to D32 in all honesty.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 21st April

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