Pericles, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Shakespeare gets a heart bypass
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The Independent Culture

There's a body on the table, a low-voiced and efficient woman is giving it the professional once over and although it's been washed up on shore not everything appears to be shipshape. Wait a minute, it's alive...

Where are we? Not in an episode of Silent Witness, that's for sure, because the acting's too good. In fact, the autopsy-that-wasn't takes place in Shakespeare's Pericles which climaxes with the hero's joyous return to life from a depressive coma. Small wonder, then, that Neil Bartlett - who himself trounced death a few years ago thanks to a liver transplant - places much of his production of this so-called "convalescent play" in the hushed grey corridors of a hospital.

Chilly white light reveals an almost sepulchral atmosphere with white-coated and black-suited characters shouldering their way purposefully through pairs of swing doors. Off-setting the gloom, however, is the narrator, played by the incomparable Bette Bourne. After decades as the prima don(na) of the radical drag troupe Bloolips (whose camp masterpieces included the brilliantly-titled Roman epic Get Hur!), Bourne has recently been stealing shows in trouser roles. Dressed here like a cross between a gruff geography teacher and Inspector Blake from On the Buses, and armed with a blackboard map and Bartlett's smart edit of the first two acts of this famously bastard text, Bourne's wickedly complicit performance grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and never lets go.

His shockingly relaxed but engrossing power is matched by Will Keen whose melancholy Pericles stands in stark contrast to the shiveringly frantic madness of his recent Ferdinand in the National Theatre's Duchess of Malfi. Keen's touchingly lonely prince nurses ever-increasing sorrows from the horrors of discovered incest to the loss of his only daughter and by the end of his 14-year journey he has gained not only the costume department's best wig and beard but a profoundly moving gravitas.

The trouble with this superb, seemingly low-energy acting is that it's contagious. From the studiedly slow rise of the curtain onwards, Bartlett's pacing is dangerously deliberate. There are exceptions - Adjoa Andoh as Dionyza, the "harpy" that betrays with an "angel's face", is beautifully steely and precise. While the even rhythm that precedes the final, heartfelt scenes of astonished reconciliationrobs them of power, Bartlett's fondness for stillness sometimes hits a bulleye.

Pericles and Thaisa, surprised by the sudden realisation of their mutal love, wrap their arms about each other. Music fills the air, but instead of dancing, the immensity of their emotions roots them to the floor. Not a word is spoken but the emotional temperature in the theatre surges as designer Paul Constable drenches the pair in intense, molten gold light.

Such moments, which dissect the text and reveal raw emotions, vindicate Bartlett's approach. But despite happy flashes of wit, the production's becalmed spirit is a mite surgical, as if he's allowed his head to run away with his heart.

'Pericles': Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (020 7452 3000), to 18 Oct