Pericles at The National Theatre: Shakespeare’s tragedy transformed into a rousing musical

Indian percussion, gospel choirs and acrobatics make for a surprising, moving reworking of the Bard's play, says Claire Webb

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The National Theatre has transformed one of Shakespeare’s least popular tragedies into an uplifting musical with a Disneyesque soundtrack, a dash of Baz Luhrmann-style pizzazz and a company of over 200 amateurs.

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In Chris Bush’s family-friendly new version, Pericles is a proud prince who loses everything. Banished from his kingdom, he discovers true love in a foreign land, only to lose his beloved wife at sea. The widowed king finally discovers the true meaning of home with the help of his long-lost daughter, and the journey at the heart of the play becomes a parable for diversity and inclusivity.

Pericles is the first production to come out of the National Theatre’s Public Acts initiative, a partnership with eight community groups and an East London theatre – the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. It’s the culmination of a year of workshops and sees 120 Londoners of different ages and backgrounds making their acting debut on the venerable Olivier Stage.

There are also brilliant cameos from amateur performance groups, including acrobatics from Newham’s Ascension Eagles Cheerleaders, percussion from Indian arts centre The Bhavan, gospel singers from Faith Works Choir, and a heartrending lamentation from the London Bulgarian Choir when Pericles is widowed.

 Director Emily Lim has stage-managed her vast cast into a slick production that never flags for a second. There’s are special effects, colourful costumes, a live band that jumps effortlessly between two dozen musical genres. Lim knows how to make the audience coo: the youngest cast members are given cute cameos.

The leads are professional and impeccable, although it’s often the amateurs who got the biggest laughs. As Pericles, Ashley Zhangazha segues seamlessly from swaggering young prince to wizened king, and from iambic pentameter to ballad. Jim Fortune’s sugary songs are perhaps more suited to a Disney movie, but the singing was superb – Naana Agyei-Ampadu deserves a special shout out as Pericles’ soulful beloved, Thaisa.

In the final act, the plot takes a surprisingly seedy turn when Pericles’ daughter is sold by pirates to a brothel. Lim’s Mytilene is a Baz Luhrmann-worthy cabaret club dripping with sequins, with a dazzling turn by Kevin Harvey as a purring drag queen.

The final song is about how “home is not the country of your birth”, and members of the company take it in turns to sing a line in their maternal language, before the rousing finale. I wasn’t the only audience member wiping away a tear during the standing ovation.

Claire Webb

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Pericles was at the National’s Olivier Theatre from 26 to 28 August. Public Act’s next project will be at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in August 2019.