Pericles, Prince of Tyre

William Shakespeare
Blotto Theatre
Greenwich Playhouse
(2009)

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I'll let you into a little secret. Come, move closer to the screen. That's it. Now I have a certain code of ethics. I like to call it my hippo-critic oath. Just like doctor/patient confidentiality, my code has always been: if a performance is bad then it's better not to mention the actor at all rather than destroy the confidence of a professional who might be having an off night, or who might be suffering from an awful director, designer or fellow performer.

Up until now, my code has worked pretty well. What, then, do I do when a production comes along with only three admittedly hard-working performers and a concept which, I had hoped, had disappeared long ago with those interminable school plays that family members are forced lovingly to endure? This is going to be tough!

Not everyone is au fait with the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In a nutshell, poor Pericles suffers a lifetime of woes and shipwrecks. Escaping the wrath of a nearby king, about whom Pericles has realised the truth of his lifelong dedication to incest, Pericles travels from Mediterranean port to Mediterranean port, picking up a wife and a daughter, only to lose them in very watery circumstances. Of course, all three are miraculously united at the end, having endured some of the most graphic sexual scenes that Shakespeare ever scratched with quill on paper.

Now that's quite a tale! The main reason why we have so little exposure to the play is its portrayal of prostitution and procurement, issues which our Victorian forebears shunned in the classroom and on the stage.

Blotto Theatre at Greenwich Playhouse have bravely engaged with this difficult play. Unfortunately, bravery has not been enough to save the production from the abyss of its own watery grave.

Announcing their arrival on the British theatre scene, Blotto Theatre proclaim themselves a "group of young practitioners driven to create high quality work" based on "a love of classic plays". They describe their Pericles as characterized by an "honest engagement with the text and a healthy sense of the absurd," adding that they believe themselves to have "an important contribution to make to contemporary theatre," produced "at any cost".

Fine words indeed. Why, then, does this production fall so far short of these worthy ideals? Principally, the blame must be laid at the feet of the company who appear to have given their designer an "at-any-cost" budget which runs into the tens of pounds. Sorrell Moore has done everything possible with an assortment of stitched-together Oxfam curtains, some sackcloth sock-puppets, and a few off-cuts from a raid on the B&Q laminate-flooring department. Add to these a tin bath, two mops, a couple of colanders and chrome steel trays, a set of stacking wooden containers, and you have the overall design concept covered.

In an age when all of us are strapped for cash, when people are finding it hard to feed and heat themselves and their children, it behoves a theatre company at least to consider value for money. Admittedly, there is no shortage of heat-producing energy from the hard-grafting cast of three. Ben Hadley, Philippa Palmer and Alex Topham Tyerman run frantically from scene to scene, from character to character, trying vainly to inject fun and frolic into a decidedly unfrolicsome, occasionally deeply dark and disturbing play.

Palmer and Topham Tyerman, playing male and female roles in giddy succession, strive tirelessly to engage with their characters. Moments of theatre can be found: Palmer's simple, innocent and well-acted Marina is such a welcome relief from the relentless clowning that has gone before; Topham Tyerman's Bawd is as sexually alluring and malevolent as her 'Ello 'Ello-inspired Thaliard is inappropriately unfunny. Both these actors deserve better from a production which appears to have suffered most from its lack of coherent direction.

Ben Hadley is Pericles for most of the performance, only adopting an unconvincing American accent for the elderly Cerimon midway through this one hour and forty-five-minute marathon. In the intimacy of the Greenwich Playhouse, Hadley's overly-projected delivery was a cause for concern, not least because vocal power was used as substitute for truthful intent. Alarm bells sounded early on as this actor (apparently early in his career) spent much of the time, when not actually delivering his lines, slyly eye-balling the audience, possibly to see if they were still awake.

Now, my code of ethical practice? There are many fine aspects to this production of Pericles. Unfortunately, try as hard as I might, I can't for the life of me remember what these aspects are. Possibly the energy of the performers? Possibly the animated roles of the two mops as opposing knights vying for the hand of a princess by angling for wooden fish with magnets? Possibly the sackcloth puppets held aloft and barking their silly-voice dialogue? Possibly the interminable three-chord plinking of a ukulele as musical accompaniment to the piece. No, none of these. Ah, I remember, the relief when the whole thing was over.

Until 22nd March

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby