March 9, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

Périclès, Prince de Tyr (Cheek by Jowl) @ Les Gémeaux, Sceaux

NB This piece is based on the first two public performance as well as the final two pre-opening rehearsal runs. I am grateful to Cheek by Jowl for so generously allowing me to observe the final stages of preparation.

Cheek by Jowl last assayed Pericles in 1984/5 in an acclaimed production that Carole Wood declared ‘cathartic, affecting, and ultimately healing’. Thirty-four years later, reuniting most of the French ensemble who toured the company’s audacious Ubu Roi around the world, the play became ever more about healing in a production that read the play as a journey out of malaise, isolation, and madness.

Other than the casting crossovers, this production formed the final piece of an informal trilogy with Ubu Roi and the English-language ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, both of which reimagined the play through a single set closely defined with one of the central characters – Annabella’s bedroom in ‘Tis Pity, and a young boy’s view of his family’s bourgeois living room in Ubu. Here, Nick Ormerod’s set, painted in rich ocean-blue, located events within the four walls of a psychiatric hospital ward, where Christophe Grégoire’s Pericles lay in a bed, seemingly comatose and attached to a drip. As with Ubu, everything used in the play came from this richly detailed set, from the hospital flowers that became Pericles’s victor’s bouquet in the jousting, to the bedpan whose contents became the storm at the start of Act 2, to the pillow that stood for the infant Marina.

It would be, I think, reductive to suggest that the events of Pericles took place purely in this man’s head; rather, Pericles acted as a metaphor for his recovery, and the worlds of the play and the ward overlapped to daring and unsettling effect; when Thaisa went into labour, the same doctor and nurses who had been looking after Pericles became her midwives. It was impossible to say whether events in the ward were generating visions of the narrative of Pericles, or if it was Pericles that was driving the modern patient’s recuperation; ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This was Cheek by Jowl’s most spatially fluid production yet, offering a more subtle use of the lighting shifts that so clearly demarcated Ubu’s transitions between dinner party and fantastical politics, and scene transitions were marked by the recursive sound of waves lapping.  The two stories were inseparable.

The spatial slippage was both supported and clarified by the company’s most integrated use of thematic doubling since Tom Hiddleston played Posthumus and Cloten back in 2007. In the hospital ward, the patient was visited by his wife, daughter and son-in-law, and tended to by a kindly doctor. Grégoire and Camille Cayol, reprising their partnership from Ubu, were the husband and wife, and within Pericles played a trio of couples: Pericles and Thaisa, Cleon and Dionyza, Pander and the Bawd. As well as allowing them to explore their relationship in three very different settings, the loss of Thaisa of course stood for the modern Pericles’s separation in his illness from his wife; the repeated staging of their partnership saw Pericles continually trying to get closer to her, at one point following her in a long circle around the stage calling ‘Thaisa?’ plaintively. These three partnerships, of course, also all act as parents at one time or another to Marina (Valentine Catzéflis); her actual parents, her adopted parents, and her keepers in the brothel (a relationship portrayed as unusually tender in this version).

Catzéflis, the ill man’s daughter, was a constant presence onstage, often simply sitting in a chair in the corner, and represented Pericles’s second major point of separation. As well as Marina she played Antiochus’s Daughter, beginning the main narrative in a position of proximity as she reclined on Pericles’s hospital bed, before walking away from him and establishing the separation that would not be resolved until the play’s conclusion. Xavier Boiffier, meanwhile, doubled as the terrifyingly large number of characters intending to fuck Catzéflis’s characters (as well as playing the ill man’s son-in-law): he was a sleazy Antiochus, running his hands over his daughter; a laughably disguised Lysimachus who pushed Marina down to her knees in front of him (a position from which, hilariously, she threw out her arms and began to pray); and a threatening but somewhat ridiculous Boult, who pulled his trousers round his ankles before she dissuaded him from his mechanical deflowering. The thematic nature of the doubling was especially apparent as Lysimachus left the brothel and Boult immediately returned; watching Boiffier go through the repeated motion of trying to have sex with Marina twice in the same scene went a long way to reinforcing her persistent role as sexual target to the play’s men. Fitting with the trend of playing the major threats to Marina, Boiffier also appeared as a hilariously diffident Leonine, reading a magazine in the waiting room while Dionyza ordered him to kill Marina; his violent assault on her triggered an alarm in the hospital and her prompt rescue by the pirates/nurses.

The ward was presided over by Cecile Leterme’s Doctor, whose tender administrations to her patient and gentle encouragement of the family established a supportive atmosphere that made safe the often tempestuous outbursts prompted by the play’s main narrative. Within Pericles, her roles were regularly as healers or carers – Lychorida, Cerimon – supported by Guillaume Pottier and Martin Nikonoff as nurses. These three bodies were the ones whose functions most obviously transcended the two narrative worlds, as Pericles’s various forms of succour were re-envisaged as medical practices. After the first storm, during which he emptied his bedpan over himself, Pericles was helped from his bed by the three medical staff, who spoke the lines of the fisherman while changing his bed, stripping, washing and re-dressing him, and throwing out his soiled clothes. The three delivered Marina and pulled the raving patient away from his daughter when he grabbed onto her in a moment’s despair. The two nurses brought Thaisa’s body to Cerimon in a body-bag on a gurney, and later (as the pirates) delivered Marina to the brothel using the same mode of transport. And in yet another beautifully appropriate bit of doubling, Leterme played Simonides, bringing together Pericles and Thaisa even as the Doctor attempted to reunite the ill man and his wife.

I focus on the doubling because it allowed this notoriously episodic play to achieve a cohesiveness and circularity that I’ve never seen before. By having the ill man’s family onstage for the vast majority of the running time (an hour and three quarters, no interval), the stakes of Pericles’s separation from his family were made crystal clear throughout, and his journey back to them – despite them being only feet away – all the more moving. Much was made throughout of simple gestures of connection and tenderness – the daughter stroking her father’s hand as he lay unconscious, the quiet son-in-law bringing cups of juice to the others. Watching this as an English speaker, I was struck by how close mère and mer sound; Marina’s longing for her mother overlapping with the sounds of the waves repeatedly brought together the literal physical journeys of the play and the emotional need to rebuild connections. By the time he finally ‘awoke’ and embraced his wife and daughter (a series of long hugs and then slow dances that were allowed to linger), the audience had spent a long time in the company of this fractured family, earning the emotional payoff.

While this was unmistakably an ensemble production, Grégoire’s fearless performance as Pericles drove events throughout. For much of the production he was physically constrained, including wearing a straitjacket for the whole of Act 2. Limited in his movement, he was mocked by Thaisa’s other preening suitors, and stood sullenly when presented to Thaisa. But moving through the swing doors of the ward into an outdoor corridor, the audience caught glimpses of the jousting, Pericles running down the other suitors while mounted on a stretcher, and following a soundtrack of cartoon violence and machine gun fire (while the hospital radio played jaunty lounge music), the beaten suitors crawled defeated back into the ward. A dance-off initiated by SImonides followed, in which the suitors waggled their arses to Thaisa’s entire disinterest, until she got up, switched the bedside radio to something more elegant, and began dancing elegantly herself. Pericles, still in straitjacket, shuffled to join her, and their dance developed into something spectacularly sexual and technically complex, different every night but culminating in the two of them rolling together on the floor as Simonides hurried the other suitors away before bringing the happy couple over to the room’s only bed.

The remarkable physicality of this sequence (Cayol, in particular, demonstrating both versatility and flexibility as her balletic movements became more heated) was just the most overt example of the company’s physical control, particularly important in distinguishing between the characters. Cayol switched easily between the elegant Thaisa, the confident, sweeping Dionyza, and the stuttering Bawd; her gait, in particularly, extended in the more confident roles. As Cleon, Grégoire was feeble-voiced, whining and hunched, his plaintive moaning a clear contrast to his wife. Leterme adopted a jovial air as Simonides, one hand in her pocket while the other waved to the unseen crowds, and was a delight as she strutted about the stage, occasionally bursting into flurries of excited movement. Upon the revelation that she had been teasing Thaisa about withholding the marriage, the two women screamed, chased each other about the stage and embraced, to Pericles’s bemusement. Relationships were clearly and simply sketched through the physical relationship of bodies to one another.

Grégoire’s Pericles was driven by his desires for his family, rendered in unconscious impulses. The early appearance of his daughter as Antiochus’s Daughter transcended the Pericles narrative and emerged in the hospital setting when, left alone with his daughter at the end of Act One, the comatose patient suddenly turned and kissed his daughter full on the lips. She ran to get help, and he slipped into his manifestation of the first storm. Later, during the reunion scene with Marina, he dropped to the floor and gnawed at his own arm, the shock and fear overwhelming him to a point where the nurses had to physically restrain him from harming himself. But the production’s most cathartic moment came immediately after, as Marina ran across the room and threw herself into her father’s arms.

The play’s different environments were rendered through the sound of crashing waves and subtle changes in lighting states that captured the tonal qualities of the various worlds. Most obviously, the brothel was bathed in a green that recalled the nightmarish scenes of Ubu, and Grégoire, Cayol and Boiffier adopted a disjointed physicality and rasping, sneering voices. Catzéflisa contrasted their stylised appearances by adopting a pious series of still positions, at one point even freezing as a statue while the scene cut to Cleon and Dionyza talking of Marina’s death; Grégoire then transitioned into Pericles learning of his daughter’s death, leading him to grab onto the statuesque Marina and sob, prompting the nurses to run in and rescue the hysterical patient. The brothel had a violent sheen to it that went along with the green, including Pander smashing the Bawd’s head against a bedpost and Lysimachus beating up the Pander on his way out of the room (to Marina’s horror, and she ran to tend to her keepers, an act of kindness that rendered Boult’s subsequent attempt to rape her all the more unexpected). While violence as manifested in this production rarely had lasting consequences, its contrast here with Marina’s steadfast performance emphasised her patience, faith, and strength in opposition to the powers of the brothel. I felt out of kilter with the French audience who laughed hysterically at much of the dialogue in the brothel scenes, so I’ll look forward to seeing how these bawdy scenes have been rendered in translation.

This was a snappy production. Gower was entirely excised, as was Thaliard and most of Act One, accelerating the play’s action to get to the meeting of Thaisa and Pericles and thus the play’s true stakes – the need to reunite the family. When Leterme’s Diana appeared, dressed in her doctor’s outfit, she spoke with all the passion and joy of the latter having successfully cured her patient. Yet the production did not make light of recovery. While the father was able to get to his feet, he became unstable and had to be helped back into bed. Boiffier, the son-in-law, stood off to the side for a long time, not quite part of the family, and in some ways seemingly unsure of his role now that the nuclear family had reunited; albeit the others eventually acknowledged his presence and brought him back into the fold. Yet even if Pericles remained in the hospital bed at the production’s close, his family were all now close with him. Hope, faith, community were all restored; there was no miracle cure or deus ex machina, but healing had begun.

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