Pericles, Lyric Hammersmith, London

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The Independent Culture

The one thing directors tend not to do when staging Pericles is to trust it. Most seem daunted by its apparently rambling structure of sea journeys round the eastern Med, and fazed by a contentious collaborative text in which Shakespeare's voice is not heard in any sustained fashion until the third act. So some take refuge in swamping this neglected late play, with its shipwrecks and reunions, deaths and miraculous rebirths, in lavish and eclectic exoticism. Others impose an external conception of unity - recent examples being the sumptuous Ninagawa production and the Cardboard Citizens' site-specific promenade staging, both of which presented the hero as an archetypal refugee whose story has contemporary parallels.

But Neil Bartlett's incisive staging discerns a deep design in the play itself. His interpretation fixes on a key structural feature. In the opening episode, the wife-hunting hero solves a deadly riddle that betrays the secret of King Antiochus's incestuous relationship with his daughter. He flees and in every subsequent port of call, he's confronted by distorted echoes of that situation. It's as though his spirit can't rid itself of a taint that will only be removed when, in the haunting recognition scene with his long-lost daughter, Marina, the risk of any repetition of that incest is faced and transcended.

Bartlett accordingly presents the play as a psychodrama. The grey set has the feel of a hospital, with swing-doors through which men in suits bustle or sea winds burst. Will Keen's compellingly nervous Pericles arrives at Antioch to take on the challenge of the riddle in gold pyjamas, a detail that poignantly resurfaces in his grimy nightwear as a clinically depressed old man in the rhyming scene with Marina.

She is played, pointedly, by the same actress (Pascale Burgess) who appears as Antiochus's daughter. Sometimes the doubling of roles is deliciously mischievous: a trio of performers crop up, tipping us the wink, all over the eastern Med, whether as fishermen, bodyguards, or clients at the brothel who are converted to virtue by the vigilant Marina. On other occasions, there is a potent significance in the duplications. Lovely Angela Down plays both the white-coated modern medic who restores Pericles' dead wife to life, and her blackly comic inversion: the would-be genteel madam at the whorehouse who tries to debauch his daughter.

It's remarkable how this emphasis on the bizarre unity of the piece does not prevent the production from doing handsome justice to its range of clashing tones. I was greatly moved by the way the wonder and joy of the reunion scene was complicated by Ms Pascale, whose stricken Marina has to fight off tears of wary incredulity and delayed grief at all the wasted years of separation. Gower, the narrator figure, is splendidly spoken by Betty Bourne in the guise of an elderly caretaker who fancies himself as posh lecturer. He, too, is a creature of disparate moods: sensitive solicitude for the characters, and a droll recognition of the play's sometimes dodgy dramaturgy. The third Pericles of this theatrical year, Bartlett's is by far the most thoughtful.

To 18 October (08700 500 511)

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