Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Pericles at the National Theatre, the first Public Acts performance that involved 200 members of cast.
Not included in the First Folio, Pericles is a difficult play. A collaboration between Shakespeare and George Wilkins, this late play is notorious for its weird elements, flighty scenes and constantly-change settings. Yet now, with the National Theatre’s production of Pericles as adapted by Chris Bush as the first Public Acts performance, this problem play has been solved. In the spacious Olivier theatre, 200 actors from eight communities across London have been gathered by director Emily Lim to grapple with this challenging play. The result is a production that adds to Shakespeare’s message of looking for home an imperative to care for strangers, a message the British people increasingly need to recognise.
An undeniable part of the success of this Pericles is Fly Davis’s design. The first visit to the poor Tarsus has deflated balloons and a bedraggled sign, with a chorus whose chipper welcome song is reminiscent of the somewhat eerie ‘Welcome to Duloc’ from the first Shrek film. Pericles is, amongst other things, a play in which water features heavily, but the cast’s use mirrors amidst a blue cloth backdrop whilst Pericles travels is clever, and which throws out an evanescent glow across the audience. In this choice, we can almost understand the beauty of Ariel’s ‘Full Fathom Five Song’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, another blue play, with this production emphasising the sea’s constant movement that is achieved through the mass of those on stage. Against the poverty of Tarsus, however, comes the seedy glamour of Mytilene, home to Bout (Kevin Harvey) and his nightclub. The implicit name of the club, one feels, is ‘Neptune’s’: a squid hangs off a glitterball and tints of blue are reflected in the entire company’s costumes. As the proprietor and host of such an opulent venue (in the original play it’s a whorehouse), Harvey puts in a stunning performance, the transferred environment subtle but overall effective, especially when peopled with so many. It is a drowned place for those with a watery moral code.
This is, ultimately, a production about people, and it’s delightful to note the variety of talents on stage. The courage in many of the young children’s performances is both adorable and effective, whilst the conviction of those older is commendable. Bush’s script must be praised for how localised details in the original play have been changed to fit a modern audience and cast: the tournament for Thaisa’s birthday is now a dance-off, with tango, waltz and a scene-stealing Jackson Five routine all vying for her love. The powerful and dominant Simonida (Ayesha Dharker), Thaisa’s mother, does not care if her daughter wishes to love men or women, so long as she sees the world and learns from her experiences. Yet despite these changes, Bush’s dialogue retains the grandeur of her Shakespearean original, with the modern lines transposed into verse flowing from many of the actors. Of the more professional cast members, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Thaisa and Audrey Brisson as Marina were especially impressive in their command of the language and in their singing. As the hubristic Pericles, Ashley Zhangazha led the cast throughout, the pain and internal suffering of his character well-realised on stage, his constant travels to distant lands filled with a latent significance over recent discussions about immigration.
This is the National Theatre in its simplest, purest, and most evocative form. Bush’s amazing script has pulled this chaotic Shakespearean play from the watery depths of time and made it into a story for modern audiences. The cast is superb, realising not only the talent latent in single communities around London but also the importance of coming together to celebrate the telling of stories. ‘A nation’s worth is shown by how they treat a stranger, not their own’, one of the younger characters melodically explains. Now is the time we must listen to these strangers and welcome them into our homes. Though I cannot help but mourn how fleeting a presence this production has had on the National’s stage, if this is what the Public Acts initiative can render, then I am most excited for what is to come. As I said at the beginning of this review: problem play, solved.
Pericles played in the Olivier theatre at the National between the 26thand 28thAugust, 2018.
Feature photograph: James Bellorini