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Pericles at the Olivier Theatre – National Theatre | Review

NT PUBLIC ACTS Audrey Brisson as Marina and Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Thaisa in Pericles at National Theatre (c) James Bellorini
NT PUBLIC ACTS Audrey Brisson as Marina and Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Thaisa in Pericles at National Theatre (c) James Bellorini

This is an ambitious project, and perhaps a little too ambitious, with the opening night running time being rather longer than planned due to a need to reset the stage as a piece of set got stuck. The caption operators were on the ball. Not satisfied with over 230 named performers and band members from all sorts of backgrounds and acting experience – the unintentional interval gave me a chance to look at the programme and count them all – the show was even more inclusive by being surtitled in its entirety. Immediately after the artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, took to the stage to explain the technical difficulty, a caption, really for any D/deaf members for the audience but visible to all, read: “We have a problem with flying stuff!”

This grand-scale community project made a classic tale very accessible and easy to follow. I’d not seen a production of Pericles before, and being unfamiliar with the storyline, the one warning I had from someone better versed in Shakespeare’s canon than me, that it might be ‘quite tiring’, turned out not to be true. The closing number, meanwhile, about what it means to come home, had, I suspect, as many different meanings as there were audience members. Having arrived at King’s Cross Station from a second trip in as many weeks to the Edinburgh Fringe just a couple of hours before this performance, the meaning for me was quite literal; for others, in different situations at any given moment, may draw more abstract conclusions.

Parts of Pericles were probably written by George Wilkins (c.1576-1618), though this production, rightly or wrongly, attributes all of it to Shakespeare. There are other aspects for purists to potentially take umbrage with – the costumes are hardly anything resembling the Age of Pericles (fifth century BC), and are as contemporary as the broad range of music styles incorporated into the show. It has not been explicitly promoted as a musical, though with the number of songs in it, it might as well have been: alongside five musicians, there are two choirs, a dance team, classical Indian drummers, a ska band and two dance companies.

Some of it, with random appearances by the various groups, showcasing their talents, did not, truth be told, drive the story forward very much. That said, I have no objections to any of them. Polished and well-rehearsed, they were clearly enjoying themselves on stage. What would be the role of John Gower in a more traditional production is here shared amongst a ‘chorus’ (Blessing Anosike, Ayo Dapo-Ayodele, Michael Maloney, Rehma Nangendo), and the tournament scene takes the form of a dance competition.

Child Marina (Helen Adesanya) brought the house down with a rendering of a brief but poignant nursery rhyme style number, while Ashley Zhangazha in the title role portrayed both the vulnerability of the Prince of Tyre in his younger years and the intensity of the older Pericles, taking to the seas once more only to find what he has been told previously is not true. A reunion between Pericles and his now adult daughter Marina (Audrey Brusson) was especially poignant, about as emotionally weighty as the “Daddy, oh my Daddy!” line in The Railway Children.

The reworked script is not perfect – I couldn’t help chuckling when ‘Mytilene’ was rhymed with ‘Mytilene’, and
make what you will of lyrics such as “Pericles likes to play, Pericles likes to woo / Pericles never pauses to
think things through” – but there’s no faulting the sheer scale, diversity and commitment of this production.
It was something rarely seen on stage: art genuinely imitating life, with a stage teeming with young and old,
energetic children and people in wheelchairs, and all sorts of ethnicities. Boult (Kevin Harvey) was delightful
as the drag queen host of an adult entertainment venue, while you’d have been forgiven for thinking the
other glamorously costumed entertainers had hot-footed it to the South Bank from the Notting Hill Carnival.

It was something rarely seen on stage: art genuinely imitating life, with a stage teeming with young and old, energetic children and people in wheelchairs, and all sorts of ethnicities. Boult (Kevin Harvey) was delightful as the drag queen host of an adult entertainment venue, while you’d have been forgiven for thinking the other glamorously costumed entertainers had hot-footed it to the South Bank from the Notting Hill Carnival.

There’s a difference between preaching about community and diversity and rolling up one’s sleeves and doing it. Not everything fits into the narrative like a hand to a glove, but I was impressed by the vibrancy of this slick and accessible production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Prince Pericles has everything but understands little. When a reckless act threatens his safety, he must flee his home and take to sea. Reliant on the whims of the fates and the kindness of strangers, Pericles is driven from shore to shore.

Only by reaching the ends of the earth may he finally understand what it means to come home.

A huge company of all ages from across London join together with professional artists to breathe new life into this classic tale in a musical version on the Olivier stage.

Pericles
by William Shakespeare
in a version by Chris Bush
with music by Jim Fortune
26 – 28 August 2018
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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