The Swan has been transformed into a round space for this late romance which, tempest-tossed as it is and bent on themes of exile and familial estrangement, is a close companion to The Winter’s Tale – also showing here – and The Tempest, both written in the twilight of Shakespeare’s career.
The stalls have been removed, creating an extended acting space which is shared with members of the audience and which is dominated by a curved ramp descending from the first circle to the ground. Those opting to stand are not only in the thick of the action, but often find themselves gently encouraged to interact, as in the feasting or communal dancing at the court of Pantapolis.
There’s thus a thrilling intimacy to be gained by this production which opens in an African Antioch, ruled over by a Mugabe-like dictator. Surly militia armed with machine guns brusquely herd the groundlings around in a scenario which echoes Cheek by Jowl’s production of Macbeth two years ago.
The action is orchestrated by the narrator figure of Gower, a magisterial Joseph Mydell, who initiates and halts the swift flow of scenes, Prospero-like, with a thump of his staff. So far, so good. Lest it be forgot; by common consent the first two acts are not by Shakespeare at all – and it shows.
I was less taken when the action transfers to Pantapolis where the jousting by the various princes vying for the hand of King Simonides’ daughter, Thaisa, becomes a sort of cross between Chariots of Fire and It’s a Knockout. In truth the original material is pretty poor but director Dominic Cooke’s decision to opt for horseplay undermines the heroic status of Pericles (Lucia Msamati) who, though solid after a dignified start, rarely rises above the prosaic.
Cooke peppers the production with detail – there’s a court photographer running around and a tout offering odds on the various princes - but ultimately it clogs things up. The multifarious cultures and costumes also detract, offering a ragbag with no guiding aesthetic. Pantapolis, presided over by a fine Richard Moore, is plain confused while Ephesus is a sort of Glastonbury Festival-by-the Sea.
There is much to admire; this production will win over newcomers to the play but ultimately, less would have been more.
- Pete Wood