Under the weather: Notoriously difficult, Pericles has claimed another victim. Paul Taylor reviews Phyllida Lloyd's new production for the National Theatre

Many of the most critical moments in Shakespeare's Pericles take place on board ship. There's a difference, though, between having a powerful marine element, such as this play has, and being positively all at sea, like Phyllida Lloyd's new Olivier production. Lavish, restlessly eclectic and stubbornly unaffecting, it pursues the hero on his episodic wanderings, equipped with every technological resource save a compass.

True, the play is a decidedly tricky customer, given its textual uncertainty and the thematic elusiveness that may be a function of that. Whether intentionally or otherwise, it tantalises the spectator with the sense of some deep mythic pattern underlying the vicissitudes of the vagabond hero which it refuses fully to pull to the surface. When Pericles works, though, as I have seen it do twice - in David Thacker's 1989 RSC production and in John Retallack's Oxford Stage Company version last summer - it offers an experience for which the exact, unexaggerated word is 'wondrous'.

Lloyd's account, by contrast, merely sets you wondering. Unlike those successful stagings, where the effects were always at the surface of a profoundly felt emotional journey, this production is so cluttered with devices and gimmicks - weird cross-gender casting, inexpressive doubling, a plethora of spectacularly silly costumes - that genuine feeling can hardly get a look-in. The moments that grip you most, it's dispiriting to report, come courtesy of technology. In the exciting storm sequences, an inner revolve of the Olivier stage rears up on a tilt to become Pericles' tempest-tossed ship, the Prince (Douglas Hodge) and his mariners struggling to keep their balance against the blast or else thrown flat on to the whirling disc of a deck.

When trying to convey internal turbulence, the production makes a poorer showing. You can scarcely blame Henry Goodman - whose Gower makes a bizarre entrance here in a jack-in- the-box-like spring out of a grand piano - for seeming, as the story's narrator, more wired-up and agitated than many of the participants. If he had to front this farrago, Desmond Lynam himself would have the jitters.

What the production fails to give is any sense of connectedness between the episodes. In the play's first adventure, the young Pericles (whose wetness behind the ears is nicely communicated here by the wacky, nave angle at which Douglas Hodge wears his crown) is roughly propelled into sober, self-mistrustful adulthood by the depravity he witnesses at Antioch. To win the king's daughter, he must answer a riddle or die. What the riddling encodes is that the princess is locked in an incestuous relationship with her father. Arched over backwards in a lewd posture of sexual availability and merely lip-synching to the king's annunciation of the riddle, Anna Pons Carrera's princess leaves its answer in no doubt.

A production needs to communicate how each of Pericles' subsequent ports of call throw up strange, distorted images of this initial encounter with evil, and the threat of incest hovers in an obscure, dreamlike way over the action, only to be transcended in the wonderful recognition scene between Pericles and Marina, the daughter he believed dead. There, significantly, the hero's rapturous cry of 'O, come hither, / Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget' recalls the riddle at Antioch 'He's father, son, and husband mild; / I mother, wife - and yet his child' and triumphantly voids it of depravity.

John Retallack's production, through some pointed doubling, caught this spooky, non-rational connectedness beautifully. The doubling and tripling of parts at the National rarely serves an interpretative function. Kathryn Hunter portrays the King of Antioch, whose evil is hard to take seriously here, because he's presented first as a tiny Rasputin-head at the top of a vast scarlet monument of a body, equipped with wagging, stick arms and then, when he's in private, as a shrivelled dwarf. Hunter goes on to play not Simonides, the king who has to sweep away Pericles' Antioch-shaped suspicions before becoming his father-in-law, but a bewhiskered Cerimon - the lord who revives Thaisa - and the Bawd in the brothel to which the pirates haul his daughter, Marina.

Hunter is a wonderful performer, but to be frank, it's only in the last of the three roles that she scores a direct hit, her eye-patched Bawd like some venereally decrepit version of Barbara Windsor, the bottle-blondness pitted with disgusting sores. When this louche harridan first claps eyes on the highly eligible Marina (Susan Lynch), you can hear the cash registers ringing in Hunter's progession by stages from an 'Oh' of appraising, taken-by-surprise pleasure to a 'Ho-ho' of determined delight at the prospect of exploiting her. In the other two parts, the incongruity between performer and character are just a distraction. You want to get involved; instead you get a quasi-impressive stunt.

Douglas Hodge is at his most convincing in the middle of the play, when launching clarion- voiced rebukes to the gods from the deck of his ship and tenderly nursing his unmothered baby. He and Lynch, whose Ulster tones valuably bring out Marina's mettle, are such good actors that you can only marvel at the flatness here of the famous recognition scene and the mess it makes of its superb sense of rhythm, playing off the rise and rise of a shattering joy against the need to be patient and to establish the facts first.

It didn't help my mood that I was accompanied by someone who was seeing Shakespeare and the National for the first time: on paper, it looks a dream introduction to both; in practice, it is rather the reverse.

(Photograph omitted)

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