Pericles (Périclès, Prince de Tyr)

William Shakespeare and George Wilkins
Cheek by Jowl
Barbican Silk Street Theatre

Christophe Grégoire Credit: Patrick Baldwin
Cécile Leterme, Christophe Grégoire, Camille Cayol Credit: Patrick Baldwin
Camille Cayol, Christophe Grégoire Credit: Patrick Baldwin

Almost every facet of this 100-minute-long production from Cheek by Jowl, a company long renowned for its adventure, is extraordinary, in the literal sense of the word.

Pericles is generally credited to William Shakespeare, while experts readily admit that a significant proportion of the play, probably a majority, was penned by another hand. In this case, moving forces behind the company Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are happy to allow the long forgotten George Wilkins to share in the glory.

While there might be questions about the attribution, nobody is in any doubt that Shakespeare (and Wilkins for that matter) wrote in English, while this touring production is delivered in French with surtitles.

The text for this late work was set in some mythical past time and typically might be expected to run for something in excess of three hours. Viewers may therefore be surprised to see the lights coming up on a deep blue hospital room complete with all mod cons. This contains a bed occupied by a man looking rather like Richard Branson, who seems at best comatose and at worst ready to enter the next world.

The opening features are a kind of dumb show as his specialist meets and explains the latest prognosis to the sick man’s wife as well as his daughter and her partner/husband. Thus far, any connection with Shakespeare’s work is at best tenuous.

What follows is a short, sharp play that runs for a little under 100 minutes and might best be viewed as an abbreviated adaptation rather than a faithful representation of the original.

Even for viewers familiar with the play, it takes some time to tune in and work out what is going on, the use of French adding an additional impediment to one’s efforts to grasp the meaning and enter into the flow of what has always been a fantastical and uncomfortable Problem Play.

After the medical prologue, events take place entirely in the comatose mind of Christophe Grégoire’s Pericles, who like his six fellows takes on multiple roles.

The group then effectively deliver tales from Pericles utilising an expressive acting style, wearing costumes appropriate to their roles as hospital staff, patient or visitor rather than their swashbuckling characters. Indeed, the main indication of the transfer into historical mode is an evocative nautical soundtrack.

The adventures and misfortunes of the Prince of Tyre and his family are thus related in a highly episodical but often exciting and moving style.

In particular, the efforts of his daughter Marina, played by Valentine Catzéflis, to stave off the terrors of prostitution using the kind of sanctity normally only seen on stage in the person of Saint Joan hit all of the right dramatic buttons.

These two performers, along with Camille Cayol who effortlessly switches between good and bad characters bringing each to life, help to turn what, on the surface, could have been very dry and barely intelligible evening into something unusual and unexpectedly satisfying.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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