Friday, 13 April 2018

Theatre review: Périclès, Prince de Tyr (Cheek by Jowl)

Co-written with a pimp he met down the pub, and only surviving in a reconstructed version from text fragments, Pericles is not exactly one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, and in fact after tonight's performance I've now seen it as many times translated into other languages as I have in the original. The play's hero begins his journey by attempting to get a royal bride by answering a riddle; when the solution gives up a terrible secret he flees, realising that what he's learnt has put his life n danger. After a couple of shipwrecks he ends up finding then losing first a new bride and then a daughter, being betrayed by many of those he considers friends, and finding that the dead have risen. In one of my favourite endearingly batshit insane scenes in all of Shakespeare, having dug themselves into a plot hole he and Wilkins resolve it by having some pirates turn up out of nowhere to abduct the leading lady.

And "batshit insane" is a sentiment that's obviously occured to Cheek by Jowl's director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, whose Périclès, Prince de Tyr is set entirely inside one man's troubled mind.

This is Cheek by Jowl's French company, whose last visit here was with Ubu Roi, and I don't know if there's a deliberate intention to give each of the company's three international companies their own feel, but this shares with that the idea of making the play a kind of chamber piece, set in a very specific location and confining all the action there. After a chic Paris apartment we now get a hospital ward where Périclès (Christophe Grégoire) is confined to bed in a catatonic state.

The production takes us into his mind, the epic sea journey of the play becoming his journey back to sanity, the doctor, nurses and visitors in his ward taking on all the characters he encounters in the story. The staging style is stripping theatre back to basics, telling a story by playing with everything the characters find around them - Cécile Leterme sucking on a pen like a cigar to turn her doctor into a pompous king, Xavier Boiffier putting shades on to indicate his character's turned up heavily disguised, and on the darker side a body bag serving as the mysterious casket that washes up on shore. For the most part the people around Périclès stick to the rules of the setting (expect when Guillaume Pottier and Martin Nikonoff as the nurses inexplicably turn up with their shirts off for one scene, because this is still Cheek by Jowl. I never said I was complaining.)

It all makes for a frantic show with some very funny moments, especially in the scenes of suitors fighting for Thaisa's (Camille Cayol) hand, which begins as a fashion show and descends into a childish joust in the hospital corridor, which we only catch surreal glimpses of. As the story starts to tie its loose ends up in the sections most likely written by Shakespeare, there's also a turn towards something a bit more moving, including in the framing device where the patient starts to get a hope of getting his mind back. But Valentine Catzéflis' portrayal of the supernaturally virtuous Marina also keeps a little of that earlier arch side to the production. Donnellan's high concept for the play is single-minded but finds a way of making some kind of sense of a famously disjointed story, and makes for a weird and wonderful evening.

Périclès, Prince de Tyr (Pericles, Prince of Tyre) is booking until the 21st of April at Silk Street Theatre; then continuing on tour to Oxford, Perpignan, Lille, Madrid and Naples.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Patrick Baldwin.

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