Cheek by Jowl’s French Pericles is a surreal, funny and touching production, but its uneven energy and avant-garde, very brief adaptation of Shakespeare and Wilkins’s play make it difficult to follow the story. However, the excellent ensemble acting, especially the actors’ stage movement, stand out, even though the storytelling sometimes lacks clarity.
The production starts in a modern, cobalt blue hospital room with a bed-ridden patient, presumably Pericles, lying unconscious. A female doctor and two male nurses check up on him regularly but he does not respond in any way. Soon his family arrive, his wife, his daughter and her partner. This very long beginning with people anxiously whispering about the gravely ill patient is suddenly stopped by the sound of the open sea, the patient awakes and becomes Pericles. The first scene from the play is Pericles’ conflict with King Antiochus which forces him to flee his home of Tyre in Lebanon. After a couple of adventures he reaches Pentapolis (present-day Libya) and falls in love with and marries princess Thaisa. Sadly, a tragedy strikes.
From then on the action onstage constantly flips from the contemporary hospital to Renaissance world of the play. The ensemble use a number of tricks to achieve cohesion but playing multiple roles makes it a real challenge. There are no costume changes and the actors only make very subtle changes to their body language when playing different characters. Camille Cayol is demure and amorous as Thaisa, and loud and desparate as the brothel owner’s wife, La Maquerelle.
Much has been said in recent years about Pericles’ geographical importance (the Middle East) thus opening it up to new modern readings, especially in the context of the refugee crisis, immigration and displacement. This production refuses any political or topical reading of the play, focusing instead on the near-tragedy of the Pericles family, aided by the framing device of the hospital. The surreal often overwhelms the personal story the director chose to tell, with the use of avant-garde aesthetic distancing us from the characters.
But without any doubt, there are several touching moments in the production, such as the recurring motif of Pericles and Thaisa’s song. When they are finally reunited, Pericles, his wife and his daughter Marina slow dance it together. Their emotions are truly palpable and deeply affective for the audience.
I wish the staging focused on bringing out the feelings and emotions more at the expense of the surreal jokes and the often tedious and confusing pacing of the story. The French ensemble are remarkable however, and Cheek by Jowl’s show is worth seeing for their impressive physical acting and the challenges they face when telling the multi-layered, dreamlike story.
- By William Shakespeare and George Wilkins
- Directed by Declan Donnellan
- Cast includes: Christophe Gregoire, Camille Cayol, Cecile Leterme, Xavier Boiffier, Valentine Catzeflis
- The Barbican
- Until 21 April 2018
- Time: 19:30 Mon-Sat; 14:30 Sat