THEATRE: Pericles; Riverside Studios, London

Staging Pericles is a project fraught with difficulties. The text as it has come down to us is outrageously corrupted and confused, so that much of the language is boring or nonsensical and the logic of the plot is hazy. All the same, the tale of Pericles' wanderings, with all its shipwrecks, deaths and mysterious rebirths, has a fundamental narrative drive, and there are a number of moving or funny scenes en route; so that you wish well to any director who has the nerve to try to solve the problems the play presents.

Unfortunately, James Roose-Evans' production, now at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith after touring around the country, manages to create more problems than it solves. In a programme note, Roose-Evans speaks of the play as representing a "spiritual quest": at the beginning of the play, when he is trying to win the daughter of the great king Antiochus, the young prince Pericles is moved by ambition and lust. As a consequence of what the director calls his "youthful recklessness", he is punished by exile and shipwreck, before winning a princess for "true love", suffering more losses (wife, daughter, sanity) and finally being healed.

It's hard to reconcile the didactic, sentimental patterning Roose-Evans detects with what actually goes on in the play. At the beginning of the play, when Pericles has the misfortune to solve Antiochus' riddle - the solution being that he and his daughter have been committing incest - he's already shown as a compassionate, selfless ruler, more concerned for his subjects' safety than his own; and his awareness of Antiochus' superior power is plain. Recklessness doesn't seem obvious. And there isn't any real evidence of spiritual improvement when he enters the lists to win the daughter of Simonides, king of Pentapolis - he's playing exactly the same game as before, only this time it turns out to be a nicer girl he's after.

In trying to fit the arbitrariness of Pericles' fate to this schematic idea of the play, Justin Butcher's Pericles ends up as little more than a collection of monolithic emotions - blustering and aggressive in the early scenes, modulating into unsubtle anguish at the end.

That unidirectional simplicity would be welcome elsewhere in the production, though, where a succession of half-thought out ideas adds to the confusion. There's no reason, for instance, for Antiochus to be having a sexual relationship with his assassin, Thaliard. There's no reason for the city of Tarsus to be placed in Africa (except an unimaginative connection between Africa and famine). There's no reason for model boats to appear on stage to represent Pericles' journey, not when they're only there for about 10 seconds.

There are spots of daylight - Ben Okafor's Caribbean Gower is compellingly sparky; John Feehan contributes an imposing drag act as the bawd who tried to prostitute the virtuous Marina (adding point to the girl's heartfelt query, "Are you a woman?"). Otherwise, it's a frustratingly misconceived evening - the shadow of a shadow of a great play

To 1 Dec. Booking: 0181-741 2255

Robert Hanks

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