The prolific Neil Bartlett - director, dramatist, translator, performer, novelist, cultural historian and artistic chief of the Lyric, Hammersmith - is renowned for the diversity of his projects, and also - because he is a genuine auteur - for the way these various ventures connect to form a coherent portrait of the artist. He's brought his incisive intelligence to bear on difficult, neglected European classics (everything from Marivaux's The Dispute to Kleist's The Prince of Homburg); he's unearthed the buried radicalism in 20th-century West End writers such as Maugham and Rattigan; and in his own pieces he's never been afraid to lay himself bare at the centre of the canvas - whether in a musical-about-musicals such as Night After Night (which explored Bartlett's relationship with his father and how heterosexual romantic love tends to be hymned in scores written by homosexuals) or a site-specific piece such as The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin (about the awkwardness of relating to these once-sacred rituals).
Shakespeare, though, has been given relatively short shrift. "In the old days, I did a few," he says. "There was an Antony and Cleopatra in which I, of course, played Cleopatra, and once I was Bianca in Othello, and what a part that is. And in the late Eighties, I directed an all-female Twelfth Night in Chicago." But since 1994, when he took over at the Lyric, his Shakespeare has been confined to a stripped-down Romeo and Juliet starring the performance artist Emily Woof. Now he's broaching the Bard again; tonight sees the first preview of his new production of Pericles, a choice which, characteristically, is not plain sailing.
With its shipwrecks, sundered families, generational jump and miraculous reunions, it's at once the prototype of Shakespeare's late romances and the least performed. It takes its hero from witnessing the deepest corruption to experiencing, 14 years later, the purest joy. The challenges are tricky. The play survives only in a corrupt text that looks as though it was assembled from memory. Lapsing into nonsense at times, the verse of the first two acts is markedly inferior to what comes after. So how do you stop a production from feeling weirdly unbalanced?
Then, with a plot that restlessly sails round the eastern Mediterranean, Pericles is episodic and prone to drastic lurches of technique and tone. "It's almost Brechtian," Bartlett says. "It can go from cheap, nasty realism in a brothel to a dumbshow to a wondrous reunion, as if to say, 'OK, here's a scene. And here's a scene. The connection between them? You work it out.'"
The difficulties, though, are overwhelmingly outweighed by the rewards. The play contains passages of ravishing poetry and one of the most haunting recognition scenes in drama when his long-lost daughter Marina draws the hero out of the withdrawn, clinically depressed state into which repeated adversity has reduced him.
There is also a potent sense of mystery and the mystical here. As a commentator put it, Pericles is "the most intensely moving, in its fragmentary way, of all Shakespeare's work". Bartlett says: "A writer once called the subconscious 'that irritating retard'. If someone you love has died, the subconscious won't accept it and it reprocesses the fantasy that that person is still alive. Pericles sits you down and makes you see it actually happen." Bartlett himself was dangerously ill a couple of years ago.
Bartlett's will be the third account of Pericles in London this year. It follows the sumptuous version by Yukio Ninagawa at the National; and the promenade staging, a collaboration between the RSC and Cardboard Citizens, a professional theatre company. Both these laid stress on how the hero, in flight from mortal danger, can be seen as the archetypal refugee. Ninagawa's beautiful production was framed by a ragged chorus of the walking wounded and dispossessed. The particular story of Pericles emerged from this and was swallowed up again in its eternal rhythms at the end.
The jolting Cardboard City version, shepherding you into a vast hall to be confronted by bewildering bureaucratic forms, took you on a walkabout through the loading bays of a Southwark warehouse. It treated the audience as detainees in an asylum processing centre, weaving in heartrending true stories of political persecution, family dispersal and personal tragedy.
These accounts used Pericles more as a pretext than a text worth excavating for its distinctive qualities. Their imaginative unity was imposed from without rather than found within. Bartlett, by contrast, talks of the "obsessive emotional coherence" he and his actors discovered in rehearsal. Near the end of the play, the hero, reunited with his wife in the Temple to Diana, goddess of chastity, at Ephesus, says to her: "O come be buried a second time, within these arms" - an image that beautifully recalls and redresses her burial at sea when she was thought to have died in childbirth. It is apt that Pericles should couch his climactic joy in such terms, for this is a drama that abounds in strange recurrences.
Bartlett is alert to what he calls these "refracted replays" that pop up with a kind of dream logic. Solving, at the start, the riddle that reveals the incestuous love of King Antiochus and his daughter, Pericles flees, and his later ports of call throw up worryingly distorted reflections of that initial situation. When he is later separated from his daughter, the threat of a tragic Oedipus-like incest lours over the play until it is confronted and transcended in the great recognition scene. "You find all sorts of alter egos," says Bartlett, who will highlight this feature by significant doubling. For example, Antiochus's daughter and Marina, polar opposites in terms of virtue and plot function, will be played by the same actress, so that Pericles's gesture of reaching out to the corrupt princess at the start will be repeated and purged of danger only when he makes the same move, five acts and 14 years later, towards his unsullied daughter.
It may take place on board ship, but Bartlett is not being fanciful when he says that it's as though the reunion between the hero and Marina unfolds "in a locked unit in a psychiatric hospital". The play starts with a riddle that horrifies when its secrets are known. As Bartlett says, there's riddling elsewhere in this work. The irony is that the spotless heroine, cut off and living with strangers, is thrown into risky situations where she, too, is forced to speak cryptically. But to achieve release, Bartlett argues, the pair have to tell their stories openly; there's a sense in which the riddle posed to the young Pericles is only "answered - in a blaze of light" in the last scenes.
When I ask if the production will be spare, he laughs and says: "Well, spare - and deeply lavish." But from what he reveals (there'll be relatively empty space, some chairs and lots of doors to create a recurrent image of to-ing and fro-ing), his staging is not going to err on the side of those wildly over-produced versions of this play that throw everything but the Dagenham Girl Pipers at it, out of a basic distrust of the material. Reviewing one of these, a critic wrote that the director approached the piece like a defence lawyer putting up a smokescreen round the shortcomings of his case. Cosmetic flummery will not be needed here, though, for Neil Bartlett has a deep and infectious respect for his underrated client.
'Pericles' is at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London W6 (08700 500511) to 18 OctReuse content