Pericles is a problem – unrelatable, distancing and totally at odds with modern logic. As a result of its lack of clear grounding in the modern world, its recent replicas have been few and far between. It’s also the play chosen as the first all French production by Cheek by Jowl’s ensemble.
The entire of Declan Donnellan’s production happens inside a hospital ward. A novel idea and one that neatly fits around the absurdity of the plot. However, it does strip away some of the unearthly magic that comes with the flitting locations and quick transitions. It’s a dizzying 100 minutes with no interval.
Cheek by Jowl offer us a new take on the old tale; instead of a raced tragicomedy with more geographical changes than dialogue capable of keeping up with it, we are contained to one hospital room setting.
Pericles’s many sea faring adventures are relegated to a mad man swaying against blue walls and beautiful courtship scenes for the hands of princesses, are now no more than hospital corridor punch ups.
For the most part this works very well, and Cheek by Jowl don’t compromise the emotions of the text. However the despair Pericles feels when he believes his wife to be dead and pushes her sealed casket out to sea is somehow diminished in this version, as instead she is never more than a few feet away in another room.
The problem with this production is that performing it in this limited space doesn’t solve any of the bizarre questions asked but never answered in the text of Pericles. For evidence of this, look no further than Marina’s incredulous narrative, an arc that doesn’t fit with this new modern world. Marina is a beautiful young woman, envied by all. She is supposedly kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel but amazingly manages to save herself by preaching virtue, essentially converting any potential deflowerers to religion.
There is no easy reunion for Pericles and Marina here; it’s heart-breaking and poignant. Perhaps the finest moment of the play is when it slows down and takes a minute to explore the terrifying nature of mental illness and what it can do to those we love.
Watching the plot play out feels like watching one of your dreams back, one which felt totally normal whilst you were having it, but now looks like utter lunacy. But it’s a brilliant lunacy, fun and expressive. Another rollicking and dynamic performance by Cheek by Jowl.
Pericles is playing The Barbican until 21 April
Photo: Patrick Baldwin