Olivier, National Theatre, London
What is a national theatre for? You’d be forgiven for answering ‘complaining about’ given the amount of sniping regularly aimed at the institution. But with the launch of Public Acts, the National Theatre’s new national initiative, you feel that they’ve alighted on the answer. The desire to “create extraordinary acts of theatre and community” by collaborating with a range of organisations whose community reach is second to none, the first result of which is this production of Pericles which brings over 200 non-professional performers onto the stage of the Olivier Theatre.
Emily Lim’s production is thus a huge endeavour but one whose heart swells effortlessly to accommodate the full scope of its representation. The choice of Pericles is a canny one and Chris Bush’s adaptation loses none of its essentially random character, the introduction of music from Jim Fortune further democratising it and adding opportunities for participation. So as the titular Prince of Tyre is forced on a character-building journey for the ages, Tarsus becomes a land of kazoos and cheerleaders, Pentapolis rain macs and wry humour (“it’s a man-fish” “or a fish-man, it’s unclear”), Mytilene a party island presided over by a drag queen.
Supporting the company are a small group of professionals who take on the leading parts. Ashley Zhangazha does a fearsomely good job in tracking the huge emotional arc of Pericles’ epic journey (and reminding us he’s quite the nifty singer), Naana Agyei-Ampadu is achingly good as the tragic Thaisa, and Audrey Brisson does an equally good job at fleshing out a middling role into something more affecting as Marina. But the real joys of this Pericles comes in the varying contributions from the ensemble and from the seven performance groups who are given the chance to shine in cameos.
The joyful harmonies of Faithworks Gospel Choir and the haunting voices of the London Bulgarian Choir with stunning soloist Dessislava Stefanova, the sweet moves of Manifest Nation and The Archetype Dance Team. And any number of the performers who all took their moment to shine – Helen Adesanya’s adorable child Marina; David Buttigieg, Paris Easton, Edris Olive and Mieko Wertheim as the suitors who have a dance-off rather than a jousting match; the young women who spoke so eloquently in the chorus. In the riot of fun that is Fly Davis’ set design, everyone seems to be having the time of their lives.
So this. This is what a National Theatre is for, embracing the full diversity of British society in every shape, size, age and ability and giving it a chance to shine on one of the largest stages in the country. Combining with the exuberant feel of carnival with the sincerity of the most serious of dramas, this Pericles proves a heart-lifting triumph. And it is also a timely reminder of the joy and the potential of theatre – you really hope some of this transformative spirit is infused into the National’s working practices and from there, further afield too. There’s so much that so many can learn here.