The National Theatre delivers perfection and an antidote to the Brexit blues in its stunning adaptation of Pericles: a defiant celebration of inclusivity, diversity and community. Following in the steps of The Young Vic (who staged a sold-out community performance of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women last year), The National Theatre channels the ancients in a new adaptation by Chris Bush. Designed to pull at the heart strings, Bush’s reimagining of the Shakespearean classic challenges audience members to think about how we treat strangers and champions the concept of having a home.
An epic undertaking, Pericles is the first born child of Public Acts, a nationwide initiative that seeks to create ambitious works of participatory theatre. And ambitious certainly is the word. The production features a cast of 120 Londoners from different backgrounds, additional performances from a variety of groups such as cheerleaders, a gospel choir and dance troupes. To say there is nothing like it in the West End is an understatement.
Pericles tells the story of the bratty Prince of Tyre, who, despite having every luxury at the tip of his fingers, is bored and longs to venture across the sea. After botching a diplomatic mission, Pericles is banished from his home and drifts until he lands in Pentapolis where he meets the love of his life. Soon after settling down, he begins to feel a longing for home, and sets off with his new family only to be caught in a storm. Ashley Zhangazha dazzles as Pericles who is gradually weathered by his misfortunes and grief. His palpable exhaustion at life’s misfortunes and fearful scorn of the sea he once looked upon with excitement is a heart-breaking portrait of the gradual loss of youthful zeal. Director Emily Lim’s use of light and mirrors makes the ocean seem as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. Naana Agyei-Ampadu too is a gorgeous Thaisa whose voice haunts the audience, with an impetuousness that makes her more than Pericles’ equal.
So much can be said of the community cast, who bring an organic touch so rarely found in the West End. While they dance and sing to the play’s gorgeous score, they act as pirates, fishermen, and cabaret performers, and they do it all with unrelenting enthusiasm and boundless charm. They really are the life and soul of the production. The diversity of the cast, which is composed of people from a range of religions, age groups and ethnicities, brings authenticity to the globalised world of the ancients that Lim expertly recreates. Lim’s establishment of four culturally distinctive places in Tarsus, Tyre, Pentapolis and Mytilene are made real though beautiful stage designs by Fly Davis. Her costumes and customs submerge the audience in this ancient world. We weep when we remember the floral egalitarian paradise that is Pentapolis with its progressive Queen Simonda (Ayesha Darker) and amazing festivals, but are equally bewitched by the sparkle of Mytilene – the ancient world’s answer to Atlantic city. The Mytilene cabaret scene is also one of the production’s greatest achievements.
Pericles put ordinary everyday people from across society at the centre of this epic tale, the result of which is an electric atmosphere of acceptance, love and kindness not often felt in the National Theatre. This ambitious, radical and daring production reminds us of the best our country has to offer, while placing emphasis on values of tolerance, goodwill, and openness. Such a reminder is just what we need within the current global climate.
Pericles is playing at the National Theatre until 28th August. For more information and tickets see here.
Photo Credit: James Bellorini