In their new production, Cheek by Jowl transform Shakespeare’s lesser-performed play Pericles into a complex exploration of madness. The stage is usually awash with seafaring paraphernalia, but here designer Nick Ormerod places the action in a sparse hospital room and washes the set in garish blue.

Cheek By Jowl helmsmen Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod vie for the title of western theatre’s most celebrated director-designer duo, probably coming second only to Belgium’s Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The pair—partners in life as well as work—have a long, long track record of recasting classics for contemporary audiences across Europe; in recent years they’ve tackled Ubu Roi in French, Measure for Measure in Russian and The Winter’s Tale in English. They return to the Barbican again now with their French ensemble—don’t worry, it’s surtitled throughout—and a radically reimagined Pericles.

Because of their globe-trotting schedule (after London, Pericles heads to Oxford, Perpignan, Lille, Madrid and Naples), Cheek by Jowl’s shows need to be flat-packed and feasibly transportable. That rarely places limitations on Ormerod, though. He’s designed all but one of their fifty plus productions, working extensively with vivid colours and striking visuals. For Pericles, he’s washed his palette clean of anything that’s not bright, almost garish blue. Blue floor. Blue walls. Blue windows. Blue cupboards. Blue nightstands. Blue radio. Blue sink. It’s like a set designed by Eiffel 65 (of “da ba dee, da ba daa” fame). Or perhaps by Yves Klein.

  • Cheek By Jowl.PERICLES dress rehearsalLes Gémeaux theatre Sceaux, France
  • Cheek By Jowl.PERICLES dress rehearsalLes Gémeaux theatre Sceaux, France

It is, in fact, a sparse, entirely blue hospital room, within which Christophe Grégoire’s Lear-like Prince of Tyre lies prone on a bed, dressed in a loose-fitting tunic. Director Donnellan’s grand concept, you see, is that the events of the play don’t take place in reality, but inside this bed-ridden Pericles’s head. He’s suffering from some kind of comatose madness, periodically waking from his slumber to wander around the hospital on imaginary exploits. He’s Don Quixote in a hospital gown, tilting at extractor fans. His wife, daughter and son-in-law fret on blue waiting room chairs, but in Pericles’s head, they’re tyrants, pirates, prostitutes and princesses.

It’s a superb idea. Pericles is one of the Bard’s lesser-spotted plays, a salty, sea-shanty of a Shakespeare that follows the eponymous hero on a series of episodic escapades around the Mediterranean. When the Globe revived it in the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2015, everything was ship-shape—masts, rigging, sails, the lot. Donnellan’s bright blue reading does away with that. The only sea we see is in the endless blue of the hospital room walls and in the crashing waves and lashing rain of Kenan Trevien’s sound design. They envelop the audience into Pericles’s fever-dreams. He’s adrift in an ocean, and so are we. All we can make out is blue, blue and yet more blue.

The result is a version of Shakespeare’s oft-derided play that is not only rollickingly entertaining, but that’s been given an entirely fresh dimension. In Cheek by Jowl’s production, it becomes more than a spirited tale of high-seas adventure; it becomes a moving exploration of madness. When Pericles finally reunites with his long-lost family in Ephesus, so he does in real life, awakening in his hospital bed to see them waiting patiently by his side. His gratitude at deliverance is tear-jerking. A magnificent reworking. A bolt from the blue.

Elephant Rating: 🐘🐘🐘🐘

Images © Patrick Baldwin


Pericles (Périclès, Prince de Tyr)

Until 21 April at the Barbican Silk Street Theatre

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