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Pericles | Chris Bush on her adaptation of Pericles

Pericles - Graphic of a sailboat tossed upon waves made of the outline of hands

It perhaps takes a special kind of arrogance to adapt Shakespeare. There you are, handling a work by arguably the greatest ever writer of the English language, going 'this is lovely Bill, but I think I can make some improvements...' Of course, ‘improvements’ isn’t the right term – I like to think of what I’m doing as more of a refocusing – all the elements are there already to make an extraordinary piece of theatre, and my job is to shuffle them around and make sure they’re serving our production the best they can.

Part of my job is logistical. Shakespeare’s Pericles is a big show, but not quite 200 people big, so it becomes a numbers game. At one moment in the original, Prince Pericles is rescued by four fishermen – in ours we have 17, which gives far more dramatic possibilities for squabbling and back-and-forth between them. One of the reasons we chose Pericles was because the world of it was so populated. Pericles travels from country to country meeting a constant stream of new people, and gives ample opportunity to use our company to their full potential.

Beyond this, there’s been some thematic refocusing too. Without changing the events of the story itself, we can subtly but significantly tweak how that story is interpreted by an audience. Shakespeare’s tale is of a man separated from and ultimately reunited with his nuclear family. In this production we’re able to zoom out and tell a bigger story about community and what home means. Pericles is no longer just an individual overcoming a series of obstacles, but a man profoundly altered by the groups of people he encounters on his travels, and who give him a new perspective on what terms like ‘home’ and ‘family’ truly mean.

My biggest goal in working on this piece is to deliver a text that our whole company feel they have total ownership of. Shakespeare belongs to them – the National Theatre belongs to them – this is their story. That’s why it’s so important to me that this isn’t just the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, but of the people who teach Pericles a new way to be. I don’t think this goes against anything in the original, but it does feel like an important shift, and one in keeping with what we’re trying to achieve throughout this project. I want this to be a democratic and open text which artistically echoes the core values of Public Acts.

Find out more about  Pericles.