Pericles, Olivier, National Theatre, London, review: 'An uplifting achievement'

The National’s vast Olivier stage has never seen anything quite like it before. Emily Lim’s production of this musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Pericles launches the theatre’s admirable Public Acts initiative. Participation is the name of the game here.

A company of 200 Londoners – of all ages and backgrounds and drawn from eight local community organisations – has joined forces with a core of professional actors for this show which is the culmination of a year of collaborative endeavour between the NT and the partner outfits. The resulting production, which opened last night for three performances, teems with vibrant, diverse and witty life, qualities that Pericles is well-suited to display. It tells the story of a Prince who commits a reckless act and antagonises a wicked, powerful king.

Now become a security risk, he’s forced to flee his home and sail from shore to shore, dependent on the kindness of strangers and sundered from his family by storm and subterfuge. Chris Bush’s adaptation and Jim Fortune’s songs put the accent more on finding what “home” really means than does the original play, whose haunting poetry surfaces in little snatches only very intermittently. A different community at every port of call. (As Pericles topically remarks, “A nation’s worth is truly shown/ By how they treat stranger,/Not their own’).

Lim performs logistical miracles as she marshals her vast cast; it includes “cameo performance groups” such as the Ascension Eagles who perform a spirited cheerleading routine in a parade at one point and the London Bulgarian Choir who deliver a spine-tingling lament for the newly bereaved Pericles. A mighty chorus evoke the tempest-tossed sea by waggling a multiplicity of mirrored boards. The cast’s joy in taking part and its transformative power are palpable and very affecting, but I was also impressed by the rigour and discipline on view.

On opening night, there was a technical problem in the garlanded, multi-layered 21st birthday party for Pericles’ future wife Thaisa (a droll, heart-stopping Naana Agyei-Ampadu). A maypole got stuck but, though the stage was heaving with everyone including tiny tots and the infirm, there was no fuss or delay in clearing it completely so that the fault could be corrected.

Part of the joy of community productions is seeing “civilians” liberated by theatre into contacting sides of themselves they probably never knew they had. I thought the number of improbable folk who had glammed up for an outrageous RuPaul-style version of the brothel in Mytilene – and were clearly loving it – was immensely cheering.

Kevin Harvey’s Boult (Lily Savage, eat your heart out) is brilliant as he forces Pericles’ kidnapped daughter, Marina (Audrey Brisson) into ever-more garish and humiliating costumes for a stage-act she has to rise above through song. Ashley Zhanghaza’s Pericles is initially cocky and callow and he graduates movingly into the heartfelt man who has been moulded by suffering. In this version, though, he does not retreat into a deep depression nor does his daughter paradoxically give birth to him anew in lifting it (there’s no trace of the great Shakespearean line: “O come hither/Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget”).

I didn’t much care for the songs which are a bit sentimental for my taste.

But who could resist the final chorus when the company hold out lanterns and sing about how home is not the country of your birth or the house you grew up, “Home is the one who leaves the light on/And won’t sleep until they heard the door click”. A sentiment such as “You are your own way home” sounds like hard-won wisdom rather than something bordering on a truism as it throbs out from these massed voices. An uplifting achievement.

It whets the appetite for Public Act’s next project, the NT in partnership with the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and due to be unveiled in August 2019.

To 28 Aug.

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