THE LEGEND OF PERICLES
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 7 November, 1996

Director James Roose-Evans has apparently waited nearly 50 years to stage his ideal production of Shakespeare's late romance, Pericles. Is it, one wonders, an anti-climax after all this time? Is he satisfied now that he has created a show which often feels like a theatrical version of The Golden Bough?

The play is problematic enough to begin with, but is given even greater difficulty in this manifestation. Its story is so diffuse that Shakespeare inserted frequent passages of synopsis to move from one episode to the next. As the narrator, Ben Okafor's Nigerian accent and cadence patterns unfortunately obscure as much as his lines may enlighten: his idea of emphasising items in his story-so-far passages is to point keenly at various spots on the stage. Okafor recites Shakespeare's defence of having citizens of various far-flung Mediterranean cities speak the same language, while Roose-Evans includes airs or chants in Scots Gaelic, Welsh and liturgical Greek (the melody of the last sounding curiously suggestive of "Let The Sunshine In" from Hair).

Whilst the play is set in the classical world (and features the goddess Diana as a dea ex machina) and the production company is an offshoot of Christian arts festival Greenbelt, Bruno Santini's design gives the proceedings a Druidic feel, and Roose-Evans appears concerned to highlight the universal anthropological elements of ritual and questing in the narrative. In short, what we see and hear is a linguistic, mythic and intellectual gumbo.

After years of searching, Roose-Evans (we are told) found in Justin Butcher the perfect actor to play Pericles, Prince of Tyre a view with which Butcher evidently concurs. He orates marvellously and throws a number of dashing shapes, especially in tempest scenes, but only begins to get down to real acting in the climactic scene of reunion between Pericles and his daughter Marina (Caroline Devlin). Criticism of Butcher is awkward, as he himself has lost a father and brother at sea; however, suffering does not of itself confer expertise. The rest of the cast vary in enthusiasm and ability from Hywel Jones's anaemic, prissy Cerimon to John Feehan's doubling of a booming King Simonides and a transvestite Bawd every bit as loud and imperious, who gets the evening's biggest laugh simply by being asked by Marina, "Are you a woman?"

Too often it feels as though Roose-Evans is more concerned with what the play represents than what it actually is, leaving it struggling to assert itself above a seething mass of disparate ideas and performances.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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