Friday, December 18, 2009

Last week Owen and I went to see the latest in the National Theatre's seasonal stage adaptations of literary children's books. After Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials", Jamila Gavin's "Coram Boy" and Michael Morpurgo's "War Horse" this year's offering is Terry Pratchett's "Nation".

I have never read any of his books but I know they are quirky as all get out so was intrigued by what the evening would hold especially as the adaptation was by Mark Ravenhill, he of SHOPPING AND FUCKING fame.

Sadly the whole thing was Amateur Hour In Dixie (thank you Suzanne).

The play was an uneasy mixture of eco-messaging, Empire-bashing and native dancing with a dash of puppetry, no doubt hoping that some of the WAR HORSE magic might rub off. It didn't.

The plot tells of a young South Seas Islander Mau (well played by Gary Carr) whose return from a boy-to-man trial coincides with a tsunami which wipes out his island's population. Shipwrecked on the island is Ermintrude, a young and prim English girl, who was on her way to see her father who is a Governor in the region. She is accompanied by her salty-mouthed parrot, and unknown to either the boy or girl, also surviving the shipwreck are two of the ship's crew and Ermintrude's former butler who has gone not-so quietly mad after the death of his son from an influenza epidemic and who is determined to kill the rich girl.Ermintrude soon adapts to her surroundings, so much so she changes her name to Daphne - and who wouldn't? Soon she and Mau have a new tribe gathered together from survivors from the surrounding islands - luckily one of them speaks English - and Daphne is soon proving her worth, helping give birth to an islander's baby and sucking the milk out of a huge pig to spit into a bowl to feed it. As you do.... However their idyll is shattered when a tribe of cannibals makes their presence known... and their leader is Cox the murderous former butler.

I presume any of Pratchett's quirkiness has got lost somewhere along the line - apart from the idea that Daphne's father is 156th in line for the throne, and there *is* a flu epidemic remember - so what we are left with is an opposites attract plotline saddled with lovable islander schtick. Which is contrasted against the fact that all the white characters are played as either eye-rolling, murderous scrutbags or Imperialist toffs. Even the late appearance by Daphne's father - who has been flagged up through the show as a decent Englishman- appears with a cricket bat under his arm. As you do. Don't worry Constant Reader, I haven't gone all Daily Mail on you... but I found the saintly islanders vs froth-mouthed British baddies rather infuriating after a while.

As I said, Gary Carr makes a good impression as Mau and Jason Thorpe as the parrot with a dirty word for every occasion was a welcome relief from the the pious platitudes and am-dram performances. A special mention must be made too for Gaye Brown as Daphne's imperious aunt - a caricature sure, but a caricature at least played with a panache.

The design features three large screens behind a revolving island and there were a couple of nice scenic effects utilising them - drowning sailors slowly spinning in space as they are thrown from their ship and an ominous shark slowly emerging from the darkness but that was about all.

The bittersweet ending strove for profundity that would have worked had the relationship between Mau and Daphne ever hinted as having any depth.

After the majestic WAR HORSE, NATION was a National Theatre disappointment.

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