Barbican Theatre, London – until 21 April 2018
Flawless royal blue walls reminiscent of the sea surround an unresponsive, middle-aged man lying in a hospital bed. Nurses and a doctor flit in and out, efficiently checking vitals and holding quick, whispered conversations with waiting family. This is Pericles, physically and mentally buffeted by a life of grief and tragedy, but this is not quite the story of Pericles that Shakespeare and Wilkins co-wrote. Translated into French and then adapted, Cheek by Jowl here present a man in poor physical and mental health trapped inside his head, in a world composed either of memories or the figments of his imagination.
Director Declan Donnellan takes a refreshing, confident approach in his bold deconstruction of a Shakespeare play, and one that is more needed in the UK in order to free the country from the shackles of its Bard worship. He is unafraid to cut and edit the story to such an extent that it’s nearly a new one whilst still maintaining the most potent parts of the original. The issue here is that it’s not entirely clear whether he’s made Pericles an Everyman, with a mind that self-aggrandises and longs for adventure never experienced, or if the story documents real events. These could be memories, actually lived or perhaps from a story that he read. Though all interpretations are valid, the ambiguity as to which one is intended is frustrating.
The cast of seven play all roles, which is often unclear as slight physical changes are the primary indicator of a character change rather than costume or set. Though this is in keeping with the production’s minimalist look, it doesn’t aid understanding. There are some wonderfully nuanced performances that show the power Shakespeare’s stories have when performed with contemporary naturalism in a mid-sized space, and it’s not hindered by the performance in French with English surtitles.
Though the audience isn’t included in the action, this in an intimate and visually arresting interpretation focused on family and survival. Thematically, there’s a lot for contemporary audiences to relate to, though the frustration of not fully following the story is a significant distraction. But for what Donnellan accomplishes with a classical text, here so often revered and dogmatically adhered to, still makes it worthy of praise.