In the summer of 2018 I performed in the National Theatre production Pericles. Below is a reflection of my time rehearsing for, and performing in the play...
If I could make it happen backwards, and play it out again, we would begin on the Olivier stage. Chanting, You Are Your Own Way Home, in layers of language, lanterns tucked into our chests like dreams. We glitter like a thousand stars in the sea. The audience squealing, standing so loud it feels like thunder. And on ‘I thought I’d lost you’ I’d unscan the stalls, we would step back, back, backstage.
A saltwater tear would pull gently up my face and audience astonishment return to awe. The heavy black shutters would reverse their way down to closet the cast of children and candles. Squeezed together, giggling together, cherishing the last time we are hushed. The last time the choir will accent our breathless lungs with silk; our last song together. Pericles would uncross the ocean as if he would never find Marina, as if it never brought them their soft, saltwater lullaby.
I would run to the fingertips of our dresser to re-tie my ruff for Mytilene. My legs glide backwards as I catwalk back on stage. My hips sway to the other side, into a sea like fantasy city; a carnival of emerald and turquoise, dance crews and our leader, Boult. Unhanding Marina and untangling ourselves from broadway lines while he strides in thigh high heels, a bleach blonde wig and eyelashes reaching the roof. Running back to my dresser, into my jumpsuit, my hair up for my last scene.
And I, alone, would trace up the steps. Back onto stage to tell (for the fourth night in a row) the wicked lie that his daughter is dead. The wicked lie that wends its way over oceans. The lie that pierced his harbour walls and flood his peace with blackness. The audience unwatch me, the spotlight unfollows me, I reverse slowly into my backstage cove. Prayer book in hand.
Brass wails pull back into the youth bands horns. Marina in Tarsus, un-captured by pirates, cold fingers wrapped around her throat, water rising, tempest-tossed. Her step-parents revel in the riches of the King. Our daughter of the seas growing young in their cruel care, until the ocean pulls her back, for the first time, into the shaking hands of King Pericles. The hands that give her away. With thunders signal and wet cheeks she wails along to the most beautiful lullaby a father ever sang his daughter.
In a land bursting with flowers and candid smiles, a party is prepared for Thaisa. I and five other girls tease her with mystical naivety. Tempting her to the rosy ocean, to sail out a little further. Coming together like muses in song: harmonising into mirrors, petals and perfumes, finger clicking and hip swinging, creating boat sails with wash cloths. We do not know that she will trip and slip into loves daze, into Pericles. She does not know that she will give a devastating birth or that her boat will split and she will end at the sea; where little Marina will start. All she knows is the feeling of the stars in her stomach. The joy that me, Ray, Hannah, Amina, Malunga and Michelle bring her. A joy that is as true every Wednesday evening in rehearsal as it is on our last night on stage.
But before any of that, when backstage is a riot, and Pericles embraced by the tough children with flowers in their hair, I catch myself in the mirror. Pericles laughing in the face of fate, takes to sail again as if for sport. And we squeeze and fuss and breathe our way to our stage entrances to morph like magic into the sea. All 200 of us, mirrors in hand, rippling and surging as violently as the lesson we are teaching. I remind myself I am not skinny, I tell myself I am the sea.
And prior Pericles finds himself in Tarsus: where real mothers and children sing together on stage. A declaration of love so public yet intimate. Oh Pericles. Not knowing that it is here that he will return to give away his daughter. Yet to discover what he leaves behind.
And so it starts in Tyre, the land of his birth. The first thread in this delicate tapestry of a story. Pericles bored and boasty. Introduced for the last first time by a sliver of our cast on the Olivier stage, a fiesta of stars in the sea, lanterns tucked into their chests like dreams. Not yet knowing that the treasure he seeks is in the lullaby, over before it began. Yet to learn that no matter how many crosses he marks on a map, home will call him like a siren from across the seas. If I could wrap it around my finger, and play it out again, it would begin with home in hundreds of tongues, in a dozen different hearts, ending where it would start.
Home. Not the country of your birth Or the house you grew up in Home is the one who leaves the light on Who won't sleep until they hear the door click Its the hand you reach for when you feel the water rising It's us. Hand in hand. Fingers spanning oceans Crossing continents Reaching beyond the grave Hands that hold me up Hands that say: Vous êtes votre propre chemin à la maison. Eres tu propio camino a casa. You are your own way home.
(Inspired by Kim Moore’s ‘Boxer’)