The last time the Guthrie staged Shakespeare’s big, weird epic Pericles was more than a decade ago, in the environs of the Guthrie lab—I remember it because I reviewed it, calling it “two, maybe two and a half, separate dramas held together with rotted twine.” I also liked it, very much.
There’s a new hand on the tiller of the cobalt battleship now, and for starters, it’s safe to say that he disagrees with my take on the near-irreconcilable, sheer oddness of the events that take place after Pericles hits the high seas in search of love. Guthrie director Joe Haj, who’s directing this production halfway into his first season as artistic director, has said that not only does he think Pericles has a unity of authorship (many scholars have accused Shakespeare of essentially cutting and pasting his way to a full script on this one), but that it’s also the master “writing at the height of his gift.”
Is Haj right? I’d tend to say not, but what’s more important is that this is our first look at Haj’s directorial vision on our biggest stage—and it’s an event we’ve been anticipating for quite a long time. Joe Dowling’s tenure deserves considerable respect (I ran into him at the Iveys shortly after he received a two-minute standing ovation for his Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was flush with goodwill and, I suspect, some measure of relief), but the time has come for what comes next.
We won’t get to know Haj overnight, but he’s been impressing everyone he talks to—and there have been a lot of those people, what with his outstate barnstorming like a true believer running for state office. Now it’s time to start getting the feel of the art he’ll put on stage. (While we should be under no illusions that artistic directors have total control—they don’t, not against the realities of attendance and sales goals—they have the most control amid gale winds of competing forces.)
Speaking of being buffeted by the winds, there’s a lot of that in Pericles, along with a shipwreck, a brothel scene, an idyll on an island, and a mad king or two. Director Joel Sass’s take in 2005 was a revelation, all dreamy archetypes and brash colors. Haj’s take is reportedly more austere—but simplicity can also spark the imagination, and let’s not forget that this was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his time, for its wild extravagances and swinging pendulum of fortune.
And if we want to talk symbolism, a hero who sets out with great intentions and ends up on chaotic digressions after being set upon by forces beyond his control—that could describe Pericles, and just maybe the leader of any large arts organization in the world. Let’s all wish Haj a path as ultimately rewarding as the hero in his latest show.
Jan. 16 through Feb. 21