The first and last thing to say is that this isn’t like anything else. Pericles is the midpoint of Public Acts, a two-year participatory theatre programme inspired by the Public Theater’s Public Works. It sees the National Theatre’s Olivier stage occupied by hundreds of people over the course of its three performances. One hundred and twenty Londoners from eight partner organisations (Open Age, Thames Reach, The Faith & Belief Forum, Coram, Body & Soul, Bromley by Bow Centre, DABD and Havering Asian Social Welfare Association) are joined by ninety performers from seven cameo performance groups and a handful of professionals onstage. The result, directed by Emily Lim, is a singular Pericles, and a theatrical moment not quite like any other, too.
Chris Bush’s adaptation is a very free telling, dipping from the original language into the kind of speech we throw offhandedly at each other now, amplifying some elements and minimising others to suit an all-ages production, such as the incestuous aspect of king Antiochus’ relationship with his daughter and the revival of Thaisa, Pericles’ wife. What we’re left with is the story of a man scarred by the incredible windings of his life: a fantastic tour to lands and their peoples, both grotesque and sympathetic, and back again.
Fate seems to have it in for Pericles and everything he loves, and though Bush minimises the neatness of the original’s ending by making Thaisa’s “death” a real one and avoiding marrying off Pericles’ daughter, Marina, the joy of the ending is kept. Getting to that ending is a maximalist affair, full of spectacle. The only permanent set fixture is a revolving, raised semi-circle dais, like a small, split and mirrored Pride Rock. Everything else is brought on by the enormous company or lowered down from the flies (more on that later), and through screening at the back of the stage we sometimes see the live orchestra, sometimes joined by choirs or some of the actors.
Ashley Zhangazha’s Pericles stands out clearly at first against his grey-clad subjects in a white blazer with gold feathers on his shoulders, gold chain around his neck, but he doesn’t stay this way for long. He’s matched well by the bright-voiced Thaisa (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) in their songs together, while Ayesha Dharker is a charming Simonida (Simonides in the original). ‘In Mytilene’ is a standout number, a playful, cabaret kind of ‘Under Da Sea’ led by the Olivier-nominated Kevin Harvey as Boult, here a spangled dame. The production is understandably a bit vague as to where Marina (Audrey Brisson, who has the unbelievable tones of an old-school, biblical angel) has ended up in servitude. To be family-friendly, she’s certainly not been forced into a brothel, but into something resembling a seedy drag establishment, and perhaps it’s her captivity here rather than the place itself which runs her down. Whether accidental or not, the pink, white and blue colours of the transgender flag in lights around the doorway she sings before are welcome.
Fly Davis’ design is a fever dream of colour. A band kitted out in pastel rainbow welcomes Pericles to Tarsus, with extremely young children in cardboard cutout fish costumes, and Thaisa’s birthday gathering of suitors is an explosion of flowers. The appearances from the cameo groups feed into this unending variety, from minute cheerleading girls (Ascension Eagles Cheerleaders) to the tiniest breakdancer I’ve ever seen (possibly from Camden-based dance company Manifest Nation).
It’s the richest possible patchwork of styles, cultural influences and theatrical methods; among others, we’re treated to appearances from tabla and mridangam players (Dhanraj Persaud, Soumyaraj Das and Nerrusan Sivaharan) from The Bhavan, the electrifying London Bulgarian Choir and Faith Works Choir. The sea which causes Pericles such grief is formed at one point from mirrors, held by the company to catch the blue light, and the sheer number of bodies around him brings home how lost he is throughout much of the story. He strives for land – for constancy – and too soon loses it. Zhangazha doesn’t get too much of a chance to define Pericles as a character with all this everything going on, but we see him age before us and he does his best. It’s simply reflective of the production’s enormous breadth and all it has to accomplish.
From this lush fray, members of the ensemble become recognisable, and not a single one falters. It’s strange to know how to talk about Pericles, which is unlike anything else in its ethos and execution simply because of its scale and position, here, at the country’s most major theatre. Just under halfway through the first of Pericles’ three performances, a technical problem with the maypole causes the action to be suspended and the stage evacuated. We wait for twenty minutes, treated to appearances from Rufus Norris (artistic director of the National) and the director of the production, Emily Lim, to keep spirits up. The live captioning summarises Norris’ explanation succinctly (“Rufus Norris: We have a problem with the flying stuff!”) to laughs.
It gives me the chance to talk to the couple sat to my left: they’re retired, they explain to me, and have come to this as Pericles is never put on. It isn’t quite what they’d hoped and they’re not sure that they like it, but they’re pleased to talk to me about their experiences with Shakespeare at the Globe, to find out I’m a reviewer. We compare backgrounds; there’s a lot of differences. They were married at my age. They call me cultured, and I try unsuccessfully to convince them that they’re the cultured ones instead, as they definitely seem to be. There’s a professional reviewer from a well-respected newspaper on the other side of me, and backstage are more than a hundred people who might well have never thought they’d be here, whether because of disability, race, age, or simple lack of opportunity. We’re all a bit hopelessly mis-matched as only members of our species can be, and perhaps many of us are thinking about what it means to be here at all.
Regardless, the lot of us are here, and by the end, the couple even have some praise for it. They’re right, it certainly does feel like a school play at points, though an infinitely larger, more coordinated one. Pericles is a strange and difficult choice for this production, with its disputes over its degree of Shakespearean authorship and relatively low profile. Public Acts makes a seemingly little play vast; it blows up to something big enough, just about, for what they want to accomplish with it. I’m glad we’ve witnessed it together.