Global Performance and Asian Gowers

As is true for much of the Shakespearean dramatic canon, Pericles has been performed in many countries outside England (Korea, Japan, Myanmar, Scotland, the U.S. and Canada, for example) to receptive audiences both Anglophone and non-Anglophone, English speaking and non-English speaking. In view of the play’s “cultural mobility,” a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, and the recognition of its transformative potential, it is not surprising to discover that the role of Gower has been taken up by non-Anglo performers who transform the poet from an ancient ghostly presence into fully animated narrator. As noted in the previous entry, he has been played as a ululating West African storyteller (by Patrice Naiambana at the Globe in 2005) as well as an African American raconteur (by Raphael Nash Thompson at the Theater for a New Audience in 2016) with exuberant verve and narrative energy.

Given the play’s mobility, it is also not surprising to discover that one of Japan’s most highly respected directors, Yukio Ninagawa, brought Pericles to London’s National Theatre (2003) where Gower was played by two actors, Ichimura Masachika and Shiraishi Kayoko, who sang together in an archaic form of Japanese while brightly illuminated signboards translated the action into English. Ninagawa’s innovations inspired by a rich tradition of Noh, kabuki, and bunraku puppetry brought “Japan and the West, past and present, theatre and life” (Sarah Buckley), together in a decidedly jarring fashion. When at the end of the play an image of the nuclear blast in Hiroshima appeared in the background, a grim memory of a suffering Japan suddenly became apparent. Much in the way that Pericles is brought out of grief and despair, the memory of Japan and the knowledge of its modern-day resurgence made it possible for an audience to imagine a nation reborn; the fusion of traditional Japanese theater elements with a horrific event of WWII proved to be a strategic maneuver that had an enormous emotional impact. Ninagawa’s view of the past as prologue to the present, a model of temporality that Gower himself would have endorsed, had a visceral effect on everyone in the theater.

When recognizable catastrophic events appear onstage, as noted above, such scenes have the ability to provoke strong, visceral responses. In the Korean production directed by Yang-Jung-ung, the narrator and staging had a similar effect. Gower, played by Yoo In-Chon, a well-known Korean actor returning to the stage after a ten-year absence, connected immediately with his audience. As the former minister of culture, In-Chon brought a level of recognition to his role as Gower and, like the character he played appeared to return from the dead, which in this case was the political arena. The decision to cover the stage with sand to evoke the coastal regions of Pericles’ journeys contributed to the mood of desolation and despair from which the protagonist emerges. As was the case with Ninagawa’s production, the play’s themes—the heart-rending separation of the eponymous prince from his wife and daughter, followed by the poignant reunion scenes—resonated with an audience still living with memories of division and dreams of reuniting the nation. The weeping reported at the end of this performance indicated that viewers had recognized the historical events that changed Korea decisively when families were torn apart and the possibility of reunion became the hope of a distant future. As if literalizing the feelings associated with communal diaspora, a boundary marked by barbed wire, surveillance towers, and armed soldiers still separates South from North.

These are but a few of the ways in which twenty-first-century adaptations of Shakespeare’s Pericles, whether performed in traditional venues, played in non-Anglophone countries or in Anglophone countries by international actors, have contributed to fresh readings of the play and the poet who narrates its action. Neither Pericles, the play, nor Gower, the poet, is eligible for accusations of stodginess or irrelevance, in this regard, but rather to be viewed as vibrant, refreshing embodiments of a continuously evolving global community. The play and its most prominent storyteller do what plays and storytellers have done since the beginning of theater: urge new audiences to think about the realities of their own lives.

Eve Salisbury


Stephen Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sarah Buckley, “A Japanese View of the Bard,” BBC News, Asia-Pacific