Bard on the ward: designing Cheek by Jowl's medical Pericles at the Barbican

With Cheek by Jowl’s new production of Shakespeare’s Pericles currently running at the Barbican Theatre before transferring to the Oxford Playhouse, Nick Ormerod describes the show’s design and its conception

The company of Pericles
The company of Pericles
© Patrick Baldwin

A man on a journey.

The initial idea for our French company was to place Pericles on the Paris metro. The dream of a man travelling from Chatelet to Vincennes and stopping off at Mytilene and Tarsus. Then came the realization that the play resonates with the plight of migrants on the Mediterranean and human trafficking. But reality sets in with the first idea: to realise a real metro carriage moving from station to station would be technically distracting. The second idea would work only for certain moments of the play.

Actors have to instantly change character on stage without any help from costume

The idea of a hospital room stems from the notion that Pericles is a man running from himself, specifically from a vague but violent fear, a paranoia. So our first improvisation used a hospital bed. The company quickly and naturally fell into two groups: the hospital staff, a doctor and two nurses, and the family visiting, the wife, the daughter and the daughter's boyfriend. It also became clear that the actors would have to instantly change character on stage without any help from costume, and much was going to depend on Pascal Noel's lighting and Kenan Trevien's sound. But a guiding principal of Cheek by Jowl is that the audience must be made to work imaginatively. They must be implicated in the act of theatre and because they have made a contribution to the event and so the public ‘co-owns' the act of theatre with us. So the action never moves from the hospital room but the audience will have visited a brothel in Mytilene, been shipwrecked twice, participated in a knightly tournament and witnessed the Goddess Diana.

Happily too the pattern of casting fell very naturally. Christophe Gregoire and Camille Cayol play three contrasting parent couples, Pericles/Thaisa, Cleon/Dionya, Pandar/Bawd, Xavier Boiffier plays three rival/lovers, a knight, Boult, and Lysimachus, and Cecile Leterme plays all the healing/'good' figures, Simonides, Cerimon, Diana.

From the beginning I felt that there could be only one entrance into the space and that needed to be a central door, leading to a corridor. It is from this door that the goddess would appear, that the body of Thaisa would be jettisoned to the sea and return from the sea again and it was through the glass windows of this door we would glimpse the dead bodies of the princes in Antioch (as it turned out the stronger solution was to bring these princes on stage).

The space naturally developed into two areas: the bed and a waiting area. And it was exciting to discover that we could seamlessly move from the real world of the family waiting, with the radio playing, into all the other locations keeping characters on stage. So for example Pericles' reunion with Thaisa at the end is achieved by her simply walking across from the waiting area where she has always been.

I make no apology for the unlikely colour of a hospital room! It is blue. As blue as the Mediterranean.