BWW Interview: Community Participants Talk PERICLES at the National Theatre
Pericles launches Public Acts, the National Theatre's new initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community. The production marks the centre point of a two-year partnership, building in-depth relationships with eight organisations which deliver visionary work in their communities, together with Queen's Theatre Hornchurch.
The community partners are Bromley by Bow Centre, Body & Soul, Coram, DABD, Havering Asian Social Welfare Association (HASWA), Open Age, Thames Reach and The Faith & Belief Forum.
BroadwayWorld has spoken to Pericles director Emily Lim, writer Chris Bush and composer Jim Fortune. Now, we hear from community members Sue and Rehma. Sue is a staff member at one of the National's community partners, of which Rehma is a member.
How did you get involved in the production?
Rehma: Sue got me involved. She's working with the community group, so she invited me.
How did you hear about the project?
Sue: We have a partnership with the NT, which is really exciting. The context is that we do lots of things with people in the community and we're always looking for interesting ways of progressing our work, especially in areas involving culture - and drama has always been at the top of that list.
The relationship with the NT is based on trust and a bit of faith about what could be done - it's sort of a first. We want to explore what can be done together with a lot of us who don't have any professional or even amateur experience in theatre.
Why is drama "at the top of that list"?
Sue: The work that I do is about encouraging people, it's about voice, it's about self-expression, it's about confidence, it's about meeting people - an acknowledgement of people's humanity. Drama is powerful for that in many different forms.
Rehma: I agree with Sue 100%. Drama is so good because it brings the community together, brings different cultures together, because we all want to know about the music, the language, what it all means. It stops people from being judgemental - it makes us care for each other.
We have Somalis, Ugandans, Europeans, representation from many African countries. When we do drama, we explore each other's music, the way we eat, our clothing - it's really great.
It's a long way, in many senses, from the East End to the National Theatre, so what's most exciting about working with the NT?
Sue: For me, it's the fact that we're creating something amazing - when you see it, you'll get what I'm talking about! Ordinary people (for want of a better description) can make really good theatre, with the right direction, support and structure around them. That's what it's about. Theatre is for everyone.
Some of us hadn't even heard of Shakespeare - but here we are. We're doing Pericles! There's no compromise in the quality and that really excites me. Whether we're singing, speaking, dancing, moving, whatever it is, the standard is the same as any other production. My conviction is that we belong on the Olivier stage!
The best theatre is done when people come together and create - acknowledging each other's humanity. On a personal level as well, in the context of work, it's an awesome experience.
Have you changed through your involvement in the project?
Rehma: It's affecting me in the right direction. It's helped me to come out more, to feel more self-confident, to know that I can do something. I've had that dream since I was young, but I couldn't make it a reality. So when I got this chance, I was so happy to be involved, because I usually hold myself back, wondering if I can do it. Talking in front of people has helped me a lot.
How have your friends and family reacted?
Rehma: They're so happy for me, especially my kids! Mum is doing something for herself - they see me coming here and that I can't wait to get started.
Do they want to have a go themselves?
Rehma: Yes, they do! They are so proud of me. "Oh Mummy, you can do it!" I have their support when I go back to practise my song, they can see the change at home - theatre has brought something new to my house, especially when we're singing. It brings us together, instead of the kids watching TV and all that. They're looking forward to seeing the show.
Had many people in the community groups been to the NT, or even theatre, before?
Sue: Our group had been on a visit, as part of the programme in December. But that wasn't everyone. It's fair to say that prior to that, the majority had not been to the NT or would normally go to the theatre.
Rehma: I remember the first time I came here - I could not believe I was at the National Theatre! We were doing a workshop and we had the opportunity to see Pinocchio - that was my first time at the NT - and it was amazing. So when they told us that we were going to be involved in Pericles, I said "Oh. Thank God!".
Shakespeare is studied at school and can be difficult in terms of language, but 400 years ago, it was communities like ours who were in the theatre. So, is there a need to build a bridge from Shakespeare's time to today?
Sue: I think the perception [of Shakespeare being difficult] is overstated - Shakespeare was for the people. To me, it feels like it's coming back to the people. That's my conviction. In our workshops, we looked at the patterns in the text, at the rhymes and things like that. Obviously, we took note of some of the differences in words and that's to do with history, but his style of storytelling is familiar to people from different cultures.
There's a feeling that he belongs in a certain box - but the truth is that he doesn't. If Shakespeare were here now, he'd be with us! He'd be doing something like Public Acts. He'd be with the people. It's where he belongs - and that's what's so exciting about the Public Acts programme.
Rehma - how have you found it, dealing with the blank verse, the poetry?
Rehma: They changed it a bit; they modified some of the language. We're still doing Shakespeare, but this version is for everyone.
Sue: Some of the text that we're using is in the original from the play. It's about forgetting the problems and just dealing with it. For some people, the early sessions were the first time they had heard of Shakespeare - so there was no "Oh my gosh - that's something we cannot do". They just said, "Oh, OK".
There's lots of stuff around the project that supports people: for example, there's a glossary of terms. The adaptation balances out honouring the original play, but modernises it with music etc. It's a nice blend.
Finally, what do you do next - what are your ambitions, your hopes?
Rehma: From what I'm doing now, I don't want to go back. I just want to move forward, to move the community forward. We just want to do more and more. It's such a lovely thing. The people who work with us, we love them very much. They didn't know us, but they support us and it's amazing how they treat us. So we have to push ourselves as well to do better and better.
Sue: We're hatching plans and hoping that things happen with more people. I've no idea where we will end up, but we're not stopping! That's the main thing.
Watch a trailer for Pericles below!
Photo credit: James Bellorini