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Pericles, Prince de Tyr review at Barbican, London – ‘arresting and imaginative’

Camille Cayol and Christophe Grégoire in Pericles, Prince de Tyr at Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Patrick Baldwin
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Shakespeare’s tempestuous late romance of loss and exile has both fairytale allure and modern resonance, its action spanning years and oceans, with themes – flight from peril, families ripped apart, sexual exploitation – that regularly confront us in 21st-century headlines.

Declan Donnellan’s Cheek by Jowl production brings the epic and the intimate into inventive collision. ‘Pericles’ marks the company’s first Shakespearean production in French (with English surtitles), and with its brisk, slick modernity, it’s arresting. It’s also fragmented.

Individual moments shock and bruise, or glow with tenderness. But the voyage between is choppy, and those without a shipshape notion of the original plot risk finding themselves all at sea.

Nick Ormerod’s setting is a cobalt-blue hospital ward, where Christophe Gregoire’s ravaged Pericles is a patient, apparently comatose. His anxious family huddle on plastic chairs, while efficiently solicitous staff tend to him. Soothing voices and smooth music trickle from a radio, and the fractured narrative intrudes on medical routine. A storm rages in a corridor, with a careening trolley and the frantic hubbub of emergency, Gregoire dousing himself from a bedpan. Bundled into a straitjacket, he’s drawn into a dance of seduction. A pillow becomes a lost baby.

Hospitals are the scene of profound human experience – birth, death, bereavement, healing, reunion – so the concept transcends a mere suggestion of fantastical morphine dream. It’s touched with disarming absurdity, and always intriguing, but its tonal shifts can jar and it sometimes seems oddly remote.

An imperfect, shape-shifting enchantment, that turns the mundane stuff of life into something rich and strange.

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Arresting, imaginative and resonant interpretation of a Shakespearean romance