After many years without a Pericles in London, we get two renditions of this rarely performed Shakespeare in successive years. But unlike last year's Moroccan fantasy from the RSC, Neil Bartlett's production fails either to inspire or entertain.
It must be said that Pericles is not a great play, being little more than a series of vignettes linked by the narrator Gower's less than inspiring verse. Its authorship is strongly questioned too, with most authorities believing that the Bard was only responsible for the latter half. Certainly, there's a disjointed quality about it - and the episodic nature represents a major challenge to any director.
In Bartlett's case, the decision to make Gower a pedantic teacher (wearing, for some weird reason, a brown coat - as if the caretaker had stepped up to the lecture podium) works to treat the piece more as morality tale and rather diminishes the effect of the reconciliation scene.
Bette Bourne is handed the thankless task of bringing Gower to life. He sticks to the task well (although vocally he does bear rather too much resemblance to John Hurt), but his perpetual cries of "thank you" to his unseen assistants and his sarcastic tone when faced with any Latin grate after a while. What's more, while his use of a blackboard might have seemed a useful device to explain the (admittedly) convoluted plot, it deadens the play almost from the start.
Nor does the set help. Bartlett himself designed this production; his rows of doors lining both sides of stage suggest a hospital, a modern university or a government department. This suits in some scenes, such as the revival of Thaisa and in the brothel, but looks ludicrous when the pirates burst through a door as if they'd just been late for a lecture.
The production is on surer footing with Will Keen's Pericles, although it's hard to imagine him as the bold adventurer of the early part of the play. Keen has the air of an accountant who has stumbled into an adventure story, but Pericles' nobility sits easily on his shoulders and he's much stronger in handling grief.
There are some strong supporting performances too. I liked Martin Turner's playful Simonides, and there's an excellent brothel scene courtesy of Angela Down, Roger Watkins and Bruce Alexander.
Yet somehow the whole fails to inspire: this Gower's hectoring extinguishes all joy from the evening. On the strength of this production, perhaps the play should be quietly placed in cold storage for another decade or so.
- Maxwell Cooter