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A CurtainUp London London Review
Pericles, Prince of Tyre

First FishermanHow do fish live in the sea?
Second Fisherman: The big ones eat the little ones,
Corin Redgrave as Pericles (Photo: Andy Bradshaw)
Pericles is one of the least-performed and most suspect plays in the Shakespeare canon. Ben Jonson called it "mouldy" and its language certainly doesn't sparkle. Despite this it was very popular in its day and Kathryn Hunter's thrilling production shows just why this might be.

She is wisely disrespectful of a dodgy text and instead creates a night of stunning physical theatre with the help of Marcello Magni (Hunter's husband) from the Theatre de Complicité and dance master Eva Magya. If theatre is about wonder, we certainly have a wonderful night. We see a boat shatter in a storm, sailors drown above our heads and drift slowly to the seabed around us. A goddess floats down from the sky. A member of the audience is caught in a net and dragged on stage by fishermen. At one point the whole Globe is a storm-tossed ship with sailors whirling through an air that almost tastes of salt. If nothing else, this production is spectacular. Pericles is a romance, similar in form to the Odyssey. Heroic Prince Pericles rattles around the eastern Mediterranean like an accursed pinball, bouncing from one port to another, sometimes racking up the points, but more often dropping down a hole. He wins fame, gratitude, success, a wife, a child, only to lose them all at the whim of the menacing sea. Will the waters ever relent? Will he get a replay? Go and see for yourself, though you should try to read the synopsis. But you will also see why Jonson thought it a cheesy piece of work. We are treated to pale re-mixes of some of Shakespeare's greatest hits: the testing of a suitor by lethal riddle, by contest, by unjust accusation. We see shipwrecks, washings-ashore and sudden fallings in love. There's a brothel fallen on hard times. There's a decent man turned into a killer, a wife whose hospitality is death, a father saved by a daughter, a dead wife resurrected. It could all be a mess.

And the evening does start uncertainly. King Antiochus (Jude Akuwudike) and his court seem to have seen Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet a few too many times to be entirely themselves, while the young Pericles (Robert Lucskay) sounds like Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em's Frank Spencer, as portrayed by Michael Crawford in the British sitcom. This character was also well-meaning and accident prone, but in every other way quite un-kingly. However, such awkwardness soon passes, largely due to the presence of the mature Pericles, Corin Redgrave, and Gower the narrator, Patrice Naiambana. Naiambana is allowed to steal the show: his Gower is reconstructed as a blend of Benjamin Zephaniah, a Malian griot and Bertolt Brecht. He sings, plays, wise-cracks, ad-libs and rams home the contemporary parallels: the arrogance of empire, the plight of the exile, the obscenity of famine in a world of plenty.

If Naiambana bigs up his role it doesn't matter because he is so good at it, but also because the play is so ramshackle it needs powerful continuity. He is Scylla to the Charybdis of the physical theatre and the play Pericles creeps nervously between them. The spectacle of flying actors and Cirque du Soleil aerial stunts was always going to, literally, upstage the more poignant moments. The scenes where Marina defends her virginity seem sketchy and unconvincing, as does her reunion with her parents and the unravelling of the plot. The heart of the play could be lost. Fortunately, Corin Redgrave provides it. Though he played Lear too recently to give us Lear-lite so soon, the image of his enduring humanity, the older man doomed to watch his life follow the same tragic course and powerless to prevent it, just wins out against the pyrotechnics.

There are too many creditable aspects of this production to mention. However, anyone with an interest in music, dance or costume would find the piece rewarding for these if for nothing else. And there is so much else. So an all-but forgotten play provides an unforgettable evening. Sorry you missed it, Ben Jonson!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Written by William Shakespeare
Master of Play: Kathryn Hunter

Starring: Corin Redgrave
With: Jude Akuwudike, Matt Costain, Harry Gostelow, Iisa Ilona Jäntti, Matilda Leyser, Robert Lucskay, Marcello Magni, Victoria McManus, Jules Melvin, Patrice Naiambana, Alex Poulter, Laura Rees, Hilary Tones, Aaron Walker
Master of Design: Liz Cooke
Master of Physical Play: Marcello Magni
Master of Music/Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Master of Ariel Choreography: John Paul Zaccarini
Master of the Words: Giles Block
Master of Movement: Glynn MacDonald
Master of Voice: Stewart Pearce
Running time: Three hours thirty minutes with one 20 minute interval
Box Office: 020 7401 9919
Link to website:
Booking to 1st October 2005 in repertory
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 2nd June 2005 performance at Shakespeare's Globe, New Globe Walk London SE1 (Tube Station: London Bridge/Mansion House via Millennium Bridge)
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