We first hear from a man who, following a family bereavement, simply walked away from his life and began to live on the road, sleeping in a tent in the woods for 14 years. It was this true oral testimony which suggested to Adrian Jackson, artistic director of Cardboard Citizens, that that company's mooted co-production with the RSC should be Pericles. Shakespeare's late play, with its geographical wanderings and its many griefs and tribulations, meshes well with the concerns of a theatre company formed to work for and with homeless people, and now increasingly also involved with refugees and asylum seekers.
Cardboard Citizens also specialise in site-specific work, and so Jackson's production takes place in a vast industrial space off the Old Kent Road, last used as a warehouse for the homelessness charity Crisis. When we hear that first story, we have just been "processed" by a studiedly impersonal front-of-house team and sat at an array of rickety desks, on which lie asylum application forms. After a number of extracts from similar testimonies – including, relatively unobtrusively, that of Pericles himself – we are treated to ludicrous mini-lectures on how to tell a story of persecution ("please try to avoid too much torture... include some jokes") and on Shakespeare and culture, before the play proper begins.
At first these tactics left me thoroughly annoyed and alienated, until I realised that this meant they were succeeding in conveying the brutality of the administrative machine. In any case, the blending of material soon assumes a less tendentious pattern, as the three-hour tale unfolds in a largely promenade production. Here and there, a line or two are modernised or paraphrased, and major events such as the many shipwrecks and separations which befall the fictional prince of Tyre and his family are illuminated with parallels from a handful of individual present-day case histories, including that of an Iranian woman whose overcrowded boat capsized on the way to Australia.
The cast of twelve are not the world's tightest ensemble, nor are they helped by understandably atrocious acoustics, but the thought and feeling put into the evening largely overcome these drawbacks, and the long-underrated Kevork Malikyan as the older Pericles gives a magnificent portrayal of quiet desolation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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