BWW Review: PERICLES, PRINCE DE TYR, Barbican
Cheek by Jowl began life in 1981, first producing plays in English before branching out to other languages; their current production of Shakespeare's Pericles is performed in French, which has recently embarked on a tour that includes Oxford, Naples, Madrid, and several venues in France, stopping for a few weeks now at the Silk Street theatre at the Barbican Centre in London. It's a rarely played piece, though there is also due to be another production by the National Theatre over the summer.
Périclès is recovering in hospital with his family around him, when he begins to have flashbacks about the adventures he has been on and the trauma he has suffered. Most prominent in his mind are the memories of his wife, Thaïsa, whose hand he won in a tournament in Pentapolis when he was shipwrecked there by a storm; the couple were returning to Périclès' home city of Tyre when another storm rose up, and Thaïsa appeared to die giving birth to their daughter, Marina. Unable to cope, he leaves Marina at Tarsus with the governor and his wife - however, she ends up being sold to a brothel and Périclès is told that she, too, is dead. Grief-stricken, he sets sail and eventually finds himself in a new land, where his fortunes might start to change for the better...
This production, directed by Declan Donnellan, is very much a condensed version of the original play, coming in at around 100 minutes long. There are positives and negatives to this approach; it does succeed in making a slightly more gripping central storyline about loss and redemption, though some parts do feel quite rushed which renders them either unnecessary or slightly farcical. It is a clever move to set the action in flashbacks, as it means everything can technically happen in the same place, so only one set is required (designed by Nick Ormerod) and the action can flow smoothly without being encumbered by set changes.
It is a noble conceit, but this does lead to significant confusion throughout. As each actor plays several different characters, it would be incredibly helpful if they had the slightest change in costume to immediately show who they are at that particular moment - the actors' voices don't seem to change much between characters either, though it can be nigh on impossible to discern slight changes in accent when someone isn't speaking in your mother tongue. It would also make more sense if Christophe Grégoire just had the role of Périclès and have someone else play Cléon and Le Maître. Given that this production is being performed in several different countries, the differing levels of audience comprehension should really be taken into account.
the company do all work incredibly hard, and once you've worked out who they are in each scene, and if the scene is given long enough to develop, you can see the characterisation starting to come through. Grégoire is especially convincing as the traumatised Périclès, creating some of the most moving moments of the play alongside Valentine Catzéflis as Marina and Camille Cayol as Thaïsa.
Whilst it's not the easiest of rides, both in terms of the themes covered and how it's presented, it is a decent concept. The English captions do mean you can at least follow the dialogue (when it works properly), though some moments are easy to grasp with some basic French knowledge or just a natural instinct for the emotions being portrayed onstage. Not one to go into lightly, but there are hints of promise that make it worth a watch.
Picture credit: Patrick Baldwin