At the start of Declan Donnellan’s staging of Pericles for Cheek by Jowl’s French company, a man lies asleep – or unconscious – in a bed in hospital room which almost completely Cerulean, the blue hue of clinical cleanliness. What’s that got to do with Shakespeare’s play?
Not having seen or read it since university – many years ago – the only thing I remembered about Pericles was that the daft prince lobs his missus overboard to her watery grave without bothering to check whether she’s properly dead. It’s a striking plot point that lodged itself in my brain for almost two decades, despite the extreme disregard with which I no doubt read it (back in the distant days of my ’90s education, all the ‘rubbish’ Shakespeare plays were lumped together, skimmed over and eviscerated in a single seminar. So thorough was the job done, I never felt the need to revisit critical opinion about them).
Who would stage such a play? Cheek By Jowl, obviously. After finding a logical thread of toxic masculinity in last year’s A Winter’s Tale that made its king’s hard-to-believe behaviour make sense, it came as no surprise that they’ve managed to make a coherent whole of Pericles, too. Here homogeneous Cerulean is also the azure-fantasy blue of a perfect Mediterranean Sea. It’s the same colour, but representing different aspects of a consciousness. It works because Donnellan exploits the Dream Play qualities of Pericles by turning it into the actual Fever Dream of its central hospital bed-bound prince, which in turns lets him tackle the play’s uber-epicness, taking in seemingly endless shipwrecks and unbelievable coincidences across a continent.
In the silent beginning, a doctor and two orderlies tend wordless to their patient. His concerned family arrive in shades of brown, a perfect accent colour to blue (it’s almost like Nick Ormerod thinks about this stuff). And, then, with just sound and lighting work, the sick man becomes our narrator and guide – our point of view from which to experience the extraordinary events of the play. The introduction of the sound of waves crashing, contrasting with an eerie, clinical silence, clearly indicated the change to the ‘dream’ of the play proper, cleverly keeping us placed. It’s a brilliant take on Pericles‘ framing device, which, builds in coherence through the evening, ultimately giving the Prince of Tyr humanity, humour and some sort-of dignity. By containing shipwrecks, reunions and the very unfortunate wife overboarding to one room – to one man’s mind – Donnellan succeeds in giving Pericles a sense of logical progression.
It also allows the multi-tasking cast the freedom to play to the excesses of the plot and find real emotional weight in the reunion scene that, given a more literal staging, strains at believability. They shift through roles, taking in high camp and high drama in a manner that makes us hyper-alert to meaning – both literal and metaphorical. Talk of a fishing net becomes a straightjacket; a mention of a physician raises an eyebrow.
Condensed into an interval-free one-hour 40 minutes, things certainly move at a fair clip, making the surtitles a challenge. But committing to reading along religiously rather misses the point. Unlike many stagings of Shakespeare, this Pericles dares to elevate the visual to equal importance alongside the Bard’s words as part of the business of meaning-making. The pace created by the ever-changing scenario and character changes makes the experience of watching like being cut adrift on the high seas. And, yet, at the same time being hugged in a safe space of endless blue.
Pericles is on at the Barbican until 21st April. Book tickets here.