Time Out says
Cheek by Jowl turn Shakespeare’s problem play into a startling French fever dream
Duking it out with ‘Cymbeline’ for the title of Shakespeare’s weirdest play, ‘Pericles’ is one long fever dream. An exiled prince puts himself at the sea’s mercy, discovering kingdom after kingdom, and losing and finding his wife and daughter along the way. Cheek by Jowl’s French-language production scrubs some sense into this storm-tossed oddity by setting it in a single, deep blue hospital room. Pericles hallucinates each strange adventure, the orderlies around him morphing into fishermen or princesses as the story demands.
Director Declan Donnellan has stripped out the original play’s wordier flourishes (Shakespeare allegedly co-wrote it with pamphleteer, victualler and all-around rum cove George Wilkins, whose passages suffer the deepest cuts). His production surges through the tale’s 15-year span in just one hour 40, no interval, with the breathless, queasy pace of an out-of-control gurney shooting down a hospital corridor.
Its courtship scene, in which Pericles duels four men for princess Thaisa’s affection, becomes a horrible nightclub-at-closing-time display of bad male dancing, followed by a warp-speed punch-up glimpsed through the hospital room’s swinging doors. Nick Ormerod’s deep blue set seems to pitch and sway as it becomes Pericles’ ship, Christophe Grégoire playing this prince as a sweaty, lost, bewildered patient who’s losing everything dear to him.
The emotional heart of the play – and the part where the pace finally lets up – is Pericles’ reunion with his lost daughter Marina. Her own narrative arc is almost laughably ludicrous: basically, she’s kidnapped by pirates who sell her to a brothel, where she converts every man who tries to deflower her with speeches on the power of chastity. Then she segues her resulting fame into teaching gentle accomplishments to local young ladies. And if I’m using dated language here, it’s because this part of the story is utterly incompatible with twenty-first-century logic. Donnellan barely rationalises it by making it all the paranoid dream of a deeply ill father. Still, Pericles’ reunion with Marina is completely heartbreaking, and points to something truthful about serious illness: the way that recovery is a restoration that brings family back together, the calm it brings after utter illogical chaos.
‘Pericles’ is Cheek by Jowl’s first Shakespeare production in French, and it works so much better than you’d imagine, even for an audience that’s overwhelmingly English-speaking. The surtitles add another layer of bewildering dislocation, and the performances are universally strong, using sinuous, tumbling physicality to conjure up every shifting scene. Watching this ‘Pericles’ is an adventure, and it leaves you breathless, relieved to be back on solid ground.