Review: Pericles – National Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Adaptor: Chris Bush

Music: Jim Fortune

Director: Emily Lim

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not William Shakespeare’s best play, nor his best-known play and, according to many scholars, it is not wholly his play at all, but here, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, a case can be made for it being one of his most entertaining.

The production is the inaugural work of Public Acts, “a nationwide initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community”. To bring it into being, the National Theatre has reached out into the community to find present and future theatre enthusiasts from all sections and nurtured them to perform on the hallowed boards of the Olivier stage alongside professional actors. Cast numbers run well into three figures. Old and young, fit and disabled and a wide range of ethnicities are represented, resulting in a show that is thrillingly diverse, wonderfully inclusive and entirely exhilarating.

Unfortunately, a malfunctioning flying maypole caused a 20-minute interruption to the opening performance, bringing an on-stage apology from Rufus Norris. If the loss of momentum disheartened the performers, they failed to show it, picking themselves up and carrying on like the true pros that some of them are.

“A nation’s worth is how they treat strangers…” Chris Bush’s adaptation tells us as her script misses no opportunities to pick up on and highlight themes that are relevant to modern Britain. The young Prince Pericles (Ashley Zhangazha) feels that he has outgrown his home island of Tyre and sets sail, arriving first in Tarsus, where he divests himself of his wealth to the impoverished people. He moves on, surviving a shipwreck, to Pentapolis where he meets and marries Princess Thaisa (Naana Agyei-Ampadu). Their daughter, Marina (later played by Audrey Brisson) is born at sea and the story follows Pericles’ journey back to his home in Tyre and to fulfilment.

Bush’s version condenses and streamlines the original play considerably, adopting the style of a book for a big musical, which is exactly what the show becomes. The simplicity of the storytelling, the lyrics and Jim Fortune’s lovely melodies frequently brings reminders of the hit Rice/Lloyd-Webber show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat. Audiences can be assured that there is no more need to be afraid of Shakespeare than of the Old Testament. Of necessity, this huge production has only a limited run, but surely the show will have a life beyond it.

The stage is often full to overflowing and awash with colour. Some of Fly Davis’ costume designs would not be out of place in Mamma Mia!, while director Emily Lim and choreographer Robby Graham must have had nightmares over potential traffic jams. The very nature of this production could have led to expectations of something makeshift and rough around the edges, but what we actually get, maypole excepted, is a show that is as slick and spectacular as any in the West End, rich in quality and with flat-out, storming production numbers staged to near-perfection. Extraordinary theatre indeed!

Runs until 28 August 2018

Image: James Bellorini

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