Public Acts’ revolutionary production of Pericles at The National is astonishing, moving and completely delightful. The iconic concrete monolith on the Southbank has housed many extraordinary productions, iconic productions that have changed the landscape of theatre: the War Horses, the Curious Incidents, the Angels in Americas – they all happen here. It seems totally fitting, then, that this extraordinary production should have found it’s life on this particular stage, dancing with the icons and the ghosts of theatre history in a riot of exuberance and humanity.
The production begins in a bare amphitheatre washed with blue and white, recalling theatre’s roots in the ancient Greek architecture and recalling also the ancient theatre’s civic structure, wherein the chorus would be cast from members of the local population. Theatre as we know it originated in rituals and rites, performed by the entire community – it was essentially a rhapsodic gathering of the people for ceremony and storytelling. Public Acts returns to this ancient structure and imbues it with new life, working with diverse communities across London and amassing a phenomenally enormous cast who work in perfect harmony with one another both as one organism and as its constituent parts. In what universe does it make sense to have cheerleaders – the fierce Ascension Eagles – and a Bulgarian choir in the same show? In this one, thankfully, and the combination and contrast is majestic and joyful.
Enormous kudos must be granted to everyone who led this production: Emily Lim, a director of incredible scope and vision; Robby Graham, the choreographer, working with all the bodies onstage with sensitivity and style; and Tarek Merchant the music director, who brings voices together in triumphant form. Set and costume, under the eye of designer Fly Davis, are also of the highest standard: following Pericles on his travels, the production moves from the bare Greek crucible through various stylised worlds, from the Kazoo playing, marching band land of Tarsus to the Little-Mermaid-Meets-Moulin-Rouge of Mytilene. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears, aesthetically delicious, with witty set changes making full use of The National’s capacity until this production becomes indistinguishable from “professional” productions on the same stage.
Chris Bush’s adaptation takes quite a few liberties with the original Shakespearean plot and text – all to the good. Although it seemed a shame that Thaisa did not make a return from death as in the original, her exquisite departure accompanied by the haunting vocals of the London Bulgarian Choir was moving beyond measure, and added a depth to this production that can be lost when all are miraculously, even absurdly, reunited. The interweaving of the Shakespearean text with the simpler lyrics of the songs and moments of modern speech works perfectly: it is truer to the text in many ways to chop, change and revise than to preserve the original like a sacred relic. Public Act’s Pericles called to mind Emma Rice’s productions at the Globe, in particular her gorgeous A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has set a new benchmark for productions of Shakespeare. Pericles has a similar energy to her pieces, an energy which can simply be described as life flowing through the veins of the production. Contemporary, electric, alive: this is what all theatre, and particularly Shakespearean productions as the bastion of British theatre, should aim towards.
The performers in leading roles are all excellent: Ashley Zhangazha as Pericles is bold and sympathetic, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Thaisa is exuberant and warm, and Audrey Brisson as Marina is iridescent. All are in possession of wonderful singing voices, and they develop their characters and relationships expertly and with moving detail. A jewel in this production is the ingenious Madame Boult, performed by Kevin Harvey in dazzling, carnivalesque form that wouldn’t be out of place in the West End’s Kinky Boots. But, if it doesn’t trip too far into the realms of cliché to say so, the real star of this production is the ensemble cast. In the final moments, the entire cast comes together on stage, voices raised in a plethora of languages saying “I am my own my way home”. It is a beautiful, raw and inclusive moment, transcending boundaries of superficial differences to assert fundamental human connectedness. It is, in the words of the programme, “open, generous and brave”. One criticism is that, in a production that stretched to nearly two hours, we really could have done with an interval – if for no other reason than to make this magical experience last just slightly longer. This kind of work is a glorious and necessary component of theatre’s future, a future which is in safe hands with the inventive and celebratory Public Acts.