Pericles is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, one that would give you a particularly impressive score on the BBC quiz show, Pointless. Left out of the First Folio and described by Ben Jonson as ‘a mouldy tale,’ it has never been particularly popular with scholars or audiences. So by all accounts, Cheek by Jowl made a brave decision when they chose to produce this play, let alone select it as their first Shakespeare play to be performed in the French language. Yet, in spite of all this, the play is impassioned, engaging and surprisingly easy to follow. A real joy to watch for Shakespeare fans and novices alike.
The stage is conceived as a blue hospital ward where Périclès lies distressed. As he recalls the trauma of his past, the blue comes to symbolise the violent sea where he lost his wife and daughter. It is the flexibility of Nick Ormerod’s set design that accommodates the difficulty of the play’s poor textual state and notorious tragicomic genre. Jumps in the tone of Shakespeare’s text, thought to be due to a collaboration with George Wilkins and a desire to hearken back to the earlier romance form, are smoothed over by the dream sequences of a deeply troubled man.
Christophe Grégoire puts in a stellar performance in the titular role of Périclès. Variously dressed in a straitjacket, wrapped up in his hospital bed, or wandering aimlessly around the stage, he portrays an unhinged Périclès wallowing in grief, somehow made all the more powerful when spoken in French. Even in the flashbacks to his youth, Grégoire maintains the older Périclès’ sad detachment from society, and although the subtitles are clearly displayed above the stage, they are almost unnecessary by this point, such is the power of Grégoire’s performance.
However, the play gets a little muddied in the middle, when Grégoire and the small cast move between different roles with no clear costume changes. His doctors and nurses become various kings and knights that he met in his youth. While this is intended to illustrate the way Périclès remembers his past through the dream frame, it nevertheless took a few lines to realise Grégoire was no longer Périclès, but the evil Cléon, for instance. As an unusual play in a foreign language, perhaps more could be done to make this clearer.
Otherwise the absurdist nature of the dream frame works well. The dance-off to win Thaisa’s hand provides much needed comic relief and the sudden appearance of the goddess Diana at the end is made somewhat easier to understand when considered to be part of Pericles’ imagination.
Like many tragicomedies of the period, the veneration of Marina’s virginity, and the bizarre plotline in which her purity convinces lecherous men to convert to a life of chastity does not work so well for today’s audiences. Much has been written about dealing with the ‘tension’ of tragicomedy, especially in relation to forgiveness and women’s bodies, as seen in Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure and Cymbeline. Modern productions tend to insert scenes that emphasise the cruelty of the male perpetrator, rather than explore contemporaneous sexual mores in which a woman takes pride in her virginity.
Director Declan Donnellan does not choose to do this, however. Instead, he embeds the strange quasi-religious ceremony of the virgin Marina into another dream sequence, just like the appearance of Diana. And it works. The absurdity of the scene emphasises how it is the product of an anxious father’s dream. It is bizarre to watch, inspiring confused giggles, but is an interesting take on the way in which modern directors should accommodate strict sexual behaviour in today’s productions, rather than shying away from it.
Nonetheless, the heart of the production still lies in the emotional reunion between Périclès, Thaisa (Camille Cayol) and Marina (Valentine Catzéflis). The trio work perfectly with each other, and their final scenes are heart-warming to watch as we realise that Périclès’ family have been by his side all along as he recovers in hospital. This is a powerful piece of theatre that makes both Périclès, and foreign language productions of Shakespeare, accessible and enjoyable for all.