Péricles, Prince de Tyr at the Barbican Theatre

Taking one of Shakespeare’s difficult, ‘mouldy tales’, Stephen Hills examines Cheek by Jowl’s new production of Pericles. Set in a psychiatric ward, this production brings cognitive awareness through creative doubling and the traditionally different approach of Cheek by Jowl, all to brilliant effect.


Cheek by Jowl has transplanted Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre, into a French psychiatric ward, where, hemmed in by antiseptic blue walls and attached to an intravenous drip, a man lies comatose, attended to by medical staff and his anxious family. The ingenuity of Declan Donnellan’s adaptation is to never quite leave these four walls, even as the play roves across perilous seas and through islands populated by pirates, royalty, pimps, prostitutes, three knights, a magician and a Greek goddess.

Christophe Grégoire. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin.

At first, the sterile locale seems at odds with the picaresque exoticism of the play text; in Act I, Pericles’ rebuke of Helicanus – ‘Thou speak’st like a physician’ – mops up easy laughs with its sideswipe at the play’s ironic setting. But Nick Ormerod’s set quickly becomes more than a pretext for an ill-man’s hallucinations, examining an often-neglected facet of the play: the protagonists’ catatonic depression after unremitting misfortune, torment and grief. By never leaving the ward, the outlandish plot of Pericles is turned to the play’s advantage as a metaphor for psychiatric trauma and the perils of recovery.

Indeed, the two worlds are stitched so that barely a blemish is left between scenes, such as when Pericles empties the contents of his bedpan over himself during his first shipwreck, and therefore requires a flannel bath in the next scene once some fishermen-come-nurses find him washed up on the hospital floor. At other times the medical routines fade into the background – intimated only by a concerned family member, flicking through a well-thumbed magazine or perching over the patient’s bed – as subtle changes in lighting and the hospital-radio playlist step in to transport the rest of the ward to the distant corners of the Mediterranean.

Key to this melding of worlds is the clinical use of Cheek by Jowl’s small cast, drawing connections between characters who would normally find themselves estranged by rough seas and distant years. Cecile Leterne’s roles – Cérimon, the doctor and Diane – are all healers; Xavier Boiffier plays sexually-violent males; while Camille Cayol and Christophe Grégoire explore three different parental pairings for the young princess. Such dramatic doubling injects much-needed psychological depth into a play often criticized for its lifeless characterization. Even the well-loved recognition scene between Marina and her father becomes charged with a perverse new sexual energy by Valentine Catzéflis’ mirrored role as the abused daughter of Antiochus.

Bypassing the possibility that this all becomes a little too confusing, conspicuous variations in acting styles ensure that each character remains distinctly drawn. Grégoire and Cayol are especially adept at these changeovers, shifting from the marionette-like movements of expressionist theatre when playing Pericles and Thaisa to more fluid, naturalistic modes for their other couplings. Grégoire in particular guides the production with a performance that is at times frightening, at others comic, and frequently vulnerable. Disconcertingly, he brings elements of Ubu Roi to the stage, reprising his role as Pere Ubu from Cheek by Jowl’s 2013-15 production, only this time to show the senselessness of being struck down by illness and how the strange fragility of mind can leave you adrift from the world. Crossovers between characters are also deliberately foregrounded, with actors transforming front of stage or making intentionally quick re-entrances rather than disappearing for costume changes in the wings. This quickens the pulse of the production but, most compellingly, it leaves the play’s ligatures in plain sight, tying the production together through its very disjunctions.

Camille Cayol. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin.

Pericles is the third production Cheek by Jowl have made with their French company (after Andromaque and Ubu Roi) and the first to translate an English play. This adds one more transition to the production and provides an opportunity to make Shakespeare’s written text a feature of the performance. Hanging from above the set, the surtitles reel off in green-digitized writing from what might have been a hospital notice board. Reading them, I was reminded of my first experiences of the Bard; how those strange, half-understood words hopped and skipped off the page for the first time. By translating the play and displaying the original, this production foregrounds the relationship between those originals and their many theatrical iterations, revelling in the fissures and opportunities of translation.

It is to this end that Donnellan’s direction proves unnervingly adept, stressing difference in one moment and correspondence in another until the two become indelibly transfused. Pericles is far from reconciled with his family by the end and he remains vulnerable and weak, his full recovery anything but assured. Yet if Cheek by Jowl’s production maintains the optimism of the original play text, it is in the sense of finding aesthetic possibility in such moments of transition, turning the deficiencies of what Ben Jonson once called a ‘mouldy tale’ into the play’s sharpest and most holistic moments.


Péricles, Prince de Tyr runs at the Barbican Theatre until the 21st April, 2018.

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