The perils of Pericles
by Michelle Draper
Wednesday, 16 July 2003
Caption: Kevork Malikyan Christopher Simpson in rehearsal for RSC and Cardboard Citizens co-production of 'Pericles'. Photo: Robert Day
Whoever would have thought that two vastly different theatre companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and homeless people's theatre organisation, Cardboard Citizens, would work on a production together? It may sound like an unlikely partnership, but the result of this collaboration will come to light next week when a play, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Pericles, opens at The Warehouse, in Southwark, London.
RSC's Director of Education, Clare Venables, explains that the idea for the two companies to work together was suggested by Arts Council England (ACE) about two years ago.
'I immediately saw that, not only is this a wonderful way for us to put together the artist at the centre of British culture with those who are the most marginalised by that culture,' Venables begins, '[but] this was also the RSC's opportunity to test our belief that Shakespeare does speak to, and for, all, whatever their circumstances or language.'
'We settled on Pericles because of the echoes for the homeless and refugees,' she continues. 'The loss of people and places, the grief and rage.'
Adrian Jackson, the Artistic Director of Cardboard Citizens' and director of the new play, agrees. A lot of plays were looked at initially, he explains, but it soon became evident that Pericles would be the Shakespeare piece of choice, considering its parallels with his own company.
'Its [Pericles'] themes seemed so entirely pertinent to my company, which has at various times attracted a number of people exiled or seeking refuge, whether from homes in this country or abroad,' Jackson notes.
As well as Artistic Director, Jackson is also the founder of Cardboard Citizens, which began in 1991 as a professional theatre company working with homeless and ex-homeless people as creators, participants and audiences. The company has grown to become a regularly funded organisation and producer of critically acclaimed theatre, receiving praise for its scripts, performances, form and content.
Like Cardboard Citizens' well-received Mincemeat in 2001 - which was based on an event from the Second World War - the latest production draws on the real-life stories of refugee and asylum seekers. The anecdotes are woven into the parallel experiences of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, who embarks on a tumultuous journey at sea, as he flees the wrath of King Antioch of Syria. The violent storms Pericles encounters, Jackson explains, become a metaphor for 'a maligned stage, a fight for life,' and are one way in which the real-life stories are integrated into the text.
Earlier this year, the RSC and Cardboard Citizens took a 'mini-Pericles' production - a condensed, 5-actor version - to refugee and asylum seeker communities around London. The play was performed before Iraqis (at the time of the recent war in Iraq, Jackson notes wryly), Kosovo Albanians, Kurds, Turks, Colombians, Iranians, and people from various African countries. After the one-hour show, the audience was invited to share their own stories, which would later be referenced in the final production.
'We were only really expecting the beginnings of conversations [after the shows],' Jackson explains. 'We then followed up a lot of those stories.
'When people could see that we were serious, that the show would be treated seriously, people opened up a bit,' he recalls.
One real experience included in the play, which has evidently touched Jackson deeply, is not of an asylum seeker in Britain, but that of a survivor who was onboard a crowded ship en route from Indonesia to Australia when it sunk in international waters in October 2001. Of the 421 passengers on board who were making the dangerous journey to seek refuge in Australia, 353 perished. A harrowing account from survivor Amal Hassan Basry not only describes her journey from Iraq, but recalls how, as the boat began to sink, a number of pregnant women began to give birth - which points to another parallel in Shakespeare's text when a storm causes Pericles' lover to go into labour.
At the heart of the play, Jackson says, is the sense of contradiction in the telling of harrowing stories and the changeable desires of those listening to them.
'We are interested in the desire to tell stories, combined with the prohibitions people place on hearing those stories,' he explains. 'People [sometimes] don't want to hear stories that are too sad, or too painful.'
Jackson points out that although people can react uncomfortably to hearing these accounts, on the other hand, there is a demand that refugees or asylum seekers tell their stories in order for them to be allowed to stay in a new country.
On a more practical note, how has the inaugural partnership between the two companies panned out, I wonder? 'I think it's been mutually beneficial,' Jackson observes. The actors, he thinks, have developed a deeper sense of ownership over the production than perhaps they would normally in a Shakespeare play.
'Pericles' runs from July 22-August 10 at 'The Warehouse' 5 Mandela Way (off Old Kent Road), Southwark, SE1 5SS. Times: 7.45pm with Saturday Matinees 3.00pm; Sunday Matinees 4.00pm (No Monday performances). Tickets: £14/£8 from the Barbican Box Office: 0845 120 7543. Further information: www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk or www.rsc.org.uk