Pericles, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

The sins of the father
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The Independent Culture

I've seen some very good productions of Shakespeare's Pericles in the past two years. There was the Cardboard Citizens' site-specific version in the loading bays of a south London warehouse (which thrust the audience into the position of bewildered refugees, like the harried, haven-seeking hero); and Neil Bartlett's account at the Lyric Hammersmith, which set this restless, seafaring piece in the frame of a modern hospital, thereby heightening the sense that it is a tragicomedy that drives people both to extremes and into the therapeutic care of doctors earthly and heavenly.

But I have not seen anything like this Andrew Hilton production at the Tobacco Factory: it has a purity and delicacy of emotional shading that I have never previously encountered. Lightly washed with music of the eastern Mediterranean and the sound of the sea, and sparely staged on a stone floor, the production is propelled by a haunting, fresh perception of the hero's predicament.

Pericles is usually presented as undeserving of the blows fate rains on him. Competing for the hand of the daughter of the King of Antioch, he is asked to solve a verbal riddle that encapsulates the fact that she is in an incestuous relationship with her father. Having decoded this grim intelligence, Pericles flees the danger and the contamination of it. It is as if the threat of incest hangs over the play (intensified when he is separated for years from his own daughter) and is purged only in the piercing recognition scene.

The new insight here is that, in that disturbingly inaugurative episode, Nathan Rimell's wonderfully winning Pericles errs in not trying to rescue the princess from the father's incestuous clutches. Catherine Hamilton, an actress who has a great deal of the beauty and the moral weight of a young Wendy Hiller, hands him the written riddle with such eloquent, dignified pleading in her eyes, albeit offset by a royal reserve, that you wonder why the absconding hero thinks only of himself.

Hamilton resurfaces in the proceedings as a splendidly sorrowful but stoic Marina, the daughter from whom Pericles is long parted. The doubling of roles creates not just that ur-Wizard of Oz sense of refracted reappearances, but a deeply dreamlike feel of the world of uncanny pre-echoings. Hilton's production is very subtly alive with this aspect of the play.

The casting is acute. Thanks to Avril Elgar, the veteran actress who brilliantly plays the Bawd, the comedy of the brothel scene plays like a continuation of the lowlife sequences in the two Henry IV plays, as well as of those in Measure for Measure. Behaving as though she were the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet after years of enforced depravity and a 60-a-day smoking habit, this shrivelled harridan of mad faith holds Marina's hand with a quasi-motherly concern. It's not a daughter she wants, though; it's a sexual gold mine. Her struggle to come over as genteel when the local ruler drops in is excruciatingly funny.

There's another beautifully judged performance from Roland Oliver as the poet Gower, the chorus-like figure who here delivers the narrative passages with the right warmth and eloquence of an old, wise man, instead of the usual in-jokiness. The production leaves you feeling not just satisfied but blessed.

To 19 March (0117-902 0344; www.tobaccofactory.com)

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