Pericles

William Shakespeare, In a new version by Chris Bush with music by Jim Fortune
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)

Ashley Zhanghazha Credit: James Bellorini
The Cast of Pericles Credit: James Bellorini
The Cast of Pericles Credit: James Bellorini

Inspired by New York's Public Theater and the general move towards opening up the arts to the community over the last few decades, the National has opened its own Public Acts account with this production of one of Shakespeare's more obscure plays.

As such, Pericles might seem an odd choice for a community piece but it gives plenty of scope for involvement to something in excess of 100 enthusiastic amateurs, joining half a dozen seasoned professionals in this opening production.

Director Emily Lim, capitalising on the work of adapter Chris Bush and composer Jim Fortune, has turned the picaresque adventure into a musical specifically designed to highlight the performers who have clearly devoted so much time and effort to bring this uplifting production to the stage.

In the nature of this kind of experiment, the 100-minute version on show veers far from the play written four hundred years ago by the greatest playwright of them all.

There are heavy cuts, large insertions and breaks for song and dance routines, many of which are catchy and spectacular respectively.

The plot outlines used broadly follow the original, though there is a tendency to simplify both the language and stories. In brief, the title role is played by Ashley Zhangazha as a hip, swaggering medallion man.

This is the kind of fellow who takes far too little care of people and places, trusting to fortune which is a mistake when almost everybody that you meet is trying to gull you.

While making a world tour, the Prince of Tyre manages to find himself a wife, Thaisa played by Naana Agyei-Ampadu, but clumsily loses her along with their baby daughter Marina, a role eventually taken by Audrey Brisson. She in turn suffers fates worse than death before even reaching adulthood.

Before reaching that point, Pericles finds himself in trouble on a regular basis, particularly falling prey to the evil designs of Cleon, played with gusto by Garry Robson.

However, the plot is not the point of this production. It is a wonderful opportunity for ordinary people to take to the stage at the National Theatre, have the most wonderful time impressing their friends and families and possibly get a taste for a future career in the theatre.

While, inevitably, the quality of the acting and performing was variable with good elocution at a premium, everybody held his or her nerve even when a rebellious maypole delayed proceedings by 20 minutes at the opening performance.

In particular, the chorus were splendid, while some members of the dancing troupes seemed good enough to be professional gymnasts or cheerleaders. Best of all, though, was a tiny breakdancer who can't have been more than eight years old but relished the chance to show the world unforgettable talents.

This is likely to be the first of many National Theatre productions involving the community, while the idea is likely to take off around the country, following in the footsteps of miracle plays and other public-spirited theatrical events of the past.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher