Interview with Chris Bush on Pericles at the National Theatre: ‘Everyone in the industry talks the talk about the theatre being for everyone, but only schemes like Public Acts put those platitudes into meaningful action.’
London Student exchange questions with Chris Bush, playwright and adaptor of the new Public Acts performance of Pericles at the National Theatre. With over 200 actors, this production of Pericles brings together members of the public from across the UK. We spoke with Chris about the show, her methods for adapting the Shakespearean original and the Public Acts initiative.
At the risk of being glib, why Pericles?
CB Shakespeare felt right – there’s something powerful and important about handing over the work of such a revered writer to a community company and saying ‘this text belongs to you – you can absolutely own this.’ The story – one of separation and homecoming – fits our purposes, and the world of the play is hugely populated, which helps when you’re trying to accommodate 200 performers.
Does this community production seek to maintain the rather unwieldly number of chaotic elements – incest, shipwrecks, pirates, a resurrection – of the Shakespearean original or have they been silently reduced for an alternative reading of the play?
We absolutely have retained and embraced a lot of the chaos and strangeness of the original (and added some additional strangeness of our own!), but equally we haven’t felt bound to follow all its ins and outs too slavishly. Some events have been streamlined or removed to hit a shorter running time, others because we are making a family-friendly show (so the incest went quite early on).
Do you think Pericles has, especially in recent times, achieved a higher contemporary relevance for modern audiences?
Our Pericles is aiming for more of a timeless feel than an up-to-the-minute contemporary reimagining (at least in terms of its setting). We discussed other options, exploring the idea of Pericles as a refugee for example, but decided that for this production that was something of a red herring. Pericles works best as a fairytale, and we wanted to embrace that. The themes, however – that of love and loss, family and community, self-discovery and a longing for home – all these things are universal, and absolutely speak to a modern audience. Our greatest strength is our extraordinary company, who are astonishingly talented and also beautifully represent everything that London is in 2018. Through having them tell this story, an ancient tale becomes absolutely rooted in the modern world.
What are the challenges of adapting Pericles?
Both a strength and weakness of Pericles is that it feels very episodic – that’s great when you’re trying to fit 200 people into a show, as he’s constantly encountering new worlds and new communities, but perhaps less satisfying narratively if instead of getting a sense of narrative progression you just have a series of escapades. So without changing the story beats too much, we’ve done a lot of work to make sure the emotional journey of Pericles is clear. Another big challenge is the language, and how it can best be approached to serve our company. I have quite a lot of experience writing in verse, and grappling with some of the knottier Shakespeare has been a really satisfying process.
Do you find it a difficult play? Or in what ways would you challenge the notion of it as a ‘problem play’?
It is undeniably messy, and one of many ‘Shakespeare’ texts where the authorship (at least of the first half) is now disputed. There are things that don’t make a huge amount of sense, a frenetic pace that can be confounding, and more shipwrecks than you can shake a stick at. That said, it’s also a great adventure and a beautifully tender story, and the final scenes contain some of the best lines Shakespeare ever wrote. In a way, because we take quite a lot of liberties with our adaptation, I’d rather work on something lesser known and slightly unwieldy, rather than one of his more iconic, more frequently performed texts where you could argue there’s no need to change anything.
If you had to describe the tone of Pericles in one word what would it be?
If Pericles is trying to pose one question to the audience, what is it? And what is the answer?
The question is “what does home mean?”, and the answer will be different for everyone! Good plays should always let the audience do some of the work.
Could you attest to the Public Acts initiative and what you see as its strongest benefits for the industry? What has it enabled in this production of Pericles?
Everyone in the industry talks the talk about the theatre being for everyone, but only schemes like Public Acts put those platitudes into meaningful action. Good theatre is life-changing for its participants – it allows people to see themselves in a new light, to be taken seriously, to tell their stories, to be heard. Furthermore, by assembling the phenomenal team they have, the NT are loudly demonstrating that doing ‘community work’ doesn’t mean compromising on quality in any way at all. We’re owning every inch of the Olivier stage, and I believe our production can stand shoulder to shoulder with any other show there this year.
What was the best thing you saw in the past year on the stage?
Tough call, but I absolutely adored Fun Home at the Young Vic.
Is there anything you wish you had seen ever? (The ‘who would you invite from history to a dinner party’ version for theatre).
Probably the first production of Pericles, so I could’ve taken notes… In my lifetime, I’m gutted that I never saw Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.
Finally, why should audiences see this production of Pericles, both in terms of your particular adaptation and the work done through the Public Acts initiative?
Because it’s the biggest company ever assembled at the National Theatre. Because it’s a beautiful story and a wild adventure. Because it’s a celebration of community and the power of the human spirit. Because it has pirates.
Many thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer our questions and to Rhian Bennett in the National Theatre’s PR Team for organising. Pericles is at the Olivier Theatre at the National between the 26th and 28th August, 2018.
Feature photograph: James Bellorini