Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Pericles

William Shakespeare
RNT Olivier
(2003)

It really doesn't sound promising, a not particularly good play only half by William Shakespeare in Japanese and possibly without surtitles. In fact, on greater investigation it turns out that the director or producers have relented and borrowed surtitles machinery from as far afield as Leeds and Plymouth to enhance this three-and-a-quarter hour production.

In hands of one of the world's great directors, Yukio Ninagawa, this turns out to be a wonderfully entertaining evening. His real tour de force is in creating great artistic interest from the early stages of Shakespeare's picaresque play which were the parts almost certainly not written by the Bard himself.

Once he reaches the interval and the rather stronger scenes thereafter, Ninagawa begins to trust the text far more and while continuing to produce scenes of great beauty, allows Shakespeare to shine.

From the moment that spotlights pick out taps at different heights pouring water into buckets it is clear that this is to be a visually beautiful performance. Everything militates towards this, the costumes designed by Lily Komine, which often look like pieces of ar, require some bravery from the actresses who are required to totter around on 12-inch heels. They fit well within the imaginative set designs of Tsukasa Nakagoshi.

This, in turn, assists the director to prepare his vision for the play. After a group of war-wounded many missing arms or legs open at the play by walking through the auditorium onto the stage, the chorus, Gower, appears in schizophrenic form as not only an old man but also an old woman. Their speeches maintain the narrative drive and are often illuminated by puppetry, cleverly using human puppets.

The story of Pericles' picaresque journey from youth to old age is told in traditional Japanese form, which adds a new dimension to what can be a disappointing play. This can be very beautiful, particularly in some of the fight and dance scenes.

Pericles encounters many dangers as he travels around the ancient world first in search of love, then escaping from evil Antiochus, through a happy meeting with the love of his life Thaisa and the birth of their daughter. He then encounters much sadness as he loses his wife and daughter and regresses into madness.

There is also much humour: for example as the eponymous hero's baby, Marina is kidnapped by sumo pirates. Marina also has the good fortune to meet two of the richest characters in the play in the comic bawd and her downtrodden assistant, Boult.

While the Japanese language may be unintelligible to many, the acting is of high quality particularly from Masaaki Uchino in the title role, Yuko Tanaka as Marina and her mother and the two Gowers, Masachika Ichimura and Kayoko Shiraishi, excellent character actors who also play several other roles.

It is hard to convey the simplicity and beauty of Ninagawa's vision but a few examples assist. His sea voyages are often depicted with simple cardboard ships and painted sheets while a ship's deck in a tempest is created wholly convincingly with little more than a rope and some physical acting. Finally, a final moving, starlit reunion scene that brings a tear to the eye could have come straight out of The Winter's Tale.

The magic of theatre then takes over to make this a very special experience, the like of which is rarely seen from any British director. In the end, the production is so mesmerising that you almost wish that the rather clunky surtitles had not been shipped in.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher