With its seaborne escapes from mortal threat and danger, Shakespeare's romance of shipwrecks, misfortune and miraculous reunions lends itself well to fusion with the timeless plight of refugees. Yukio Ninagawa's production, recently seen at the National Theatre, was framed by a ragged chorus of the walking wounded and dispossessed. The story of Pericles emerged from this mass and was swallowed up again in its eternal rhythms at the end.
That device begins to look overly picturesque in the light of this bracing new vision of the piece presented by Cardboard Citizens (a theatre company that works with homeless people) in association with the RSC. It's a site-specific production set in a vast warehouse in Southwark. Entry is designed to be like going through immigration, and you are herded into a hall where you sit at desks and are told to fill out the bulky application forms for asylum.
Nerve-jangling bells ring and individuals rush up to the front to tell you as much of their heartrending tales of political persecution, family dispersal and personal tragedy as they can spit out before a buzzer cuts them off and they are replaced by someone else.
The play begins from within the ranks of the asylum applicants. Adrian Jackson's inspiring, if too slowly paced, production then takes you on a tour of the warehouse, where each stage of the central character's wanderings has been created as an installation in a different loading bay. At every port of call, the audience can rely on three things - that it will be in a different spatial relationship with the action; that the marine imagery of this sea-tossed play will be imaginatively reinvented by the designer Fred Meller; and that the shifts between Shakespeare's drama and the parallel predicaments of contemporary refugees will have a piercing dignity and never feel forced or pious.
For example, the younger Pericles (sensitively played by the charismatic Christopher Simpson) is thrown up on the coast of Pentapolis, here represented by juddering, water-spilling washing machines and a pile of laundry. At the start of the show, you hear a man recounting the story of how, when his family was killed in a car accident, he walked out of his house and his life and just carried on walking. His silence in a later, dramatised interview is a haunting preparation for the depressed silence of the older Pericles (an impressively still Kevork Malikyan), who believes that he is similarly bereaved and can only be stirred from his intense introversion by reunion with his daughter, Marina.
There are things that don't come off. In the conventions of the romance genre, Marina's virginity remains intact when she's sold to a brothel because her infectious goodness converts all the clients to virtue. She'd struggle to pull that trick off at the sleazy modern establishment we are shown here.
But the show scores more hits than misses. The temple of Diana at Ephesus, where Pericles' wife has been a vestal all these years, is outrageously revamped as a shrine to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, knee-deep in floral tributes. It's a tribute to the production that the cheekiness of this does not detract from the sense of wonder when wife and husband are reunited. And before bringing Pericles' story to a moving close, the show offers an update on the contemporary asylum seekers it has followed, juxtaposing the often painful inconclusiveness of their stories with the consolations of closure in art.
To 10 August (0845 120 7543)
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