BWW Reviews: NATION, by Terry Pratchett, National Theatre, January 18 2010
In the American animated series, Dr Katz, Professional Therapist, comedian Bill Braudis is explaining one reason for his neurosis - his poor choice of clothing on arrival in the 50th state of the USA. "I thought Hawaii would be nothing but people wearing grass skirts and coconut halves on their breasts, but turns out it was just me." In Nation, Mark Ravenhill's passionate adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett's 2008 novel, there's just a little too much reliance on that stereotype and its contrast with the repressed Victorian, sledgehammered home with Dickensian fervour, for this reviewer's comfort, but that is one of the few faults in the National Theatre's current family blockbuster.
Luxuriating in the space of the Olivier Theatre, director Melly Still creates an extraordinary tsunami that simultaneously wipes out Mau's South Pacific Island Nation sparing him as he is away undergoing his isolated, and ultimately incomplete, rite of passage to manhood and shipwrecks aristocratic Ermintrude, a kind of nineteenth century Hannah Montana with her confident resourcefulness and precocious song and dance ability. They are thrown together and plot the familiar path from mutual fear, to mutual trust and inevitably, mutual, if unrequited love. Along the way, there is plenty of time for the audience to be educated about the ancient cultures of the Southern Hemisphere, with allusions to climate change's impact on island people's flagged up loud and clear enough for the pre-teens in the stalls. There's also some gentle Dawkinsian undermining of religion in favour of science and an unsentimental approach to exploring the meaning of death, particularly how it is marked in different cultures.
If the story is a little predictable (there's a local death cult and an evil butler with a grudge to be fought off by our adolescent couple) the staging is anything but. Projections of underwater swimming and ancient sacred caves are highly realistic and there's a lot of bangs and crashes in the tsunami and from pistols brandished in anger. The use of puppets on stage as birds, idols and, sensationally, as a gigantic pig, is jaw-droppingly spectacular and the revolving stage used well to maintain the pace of narrative the target audience demands. With all that going on, the two young leads have to fight to make themselves heard, which they do successfully. Gary Carr's Mau is ultra-toned and looks well into manhood no matter how much he protests to be neither boy nor man - Carr does his best with a part that is a little too one-dimensional in its creation of a Hero. Emily Taffe starts off looking like the long-lost fourth sibling of the Railway Children, but is soon delivering a baby, wearing, yes, a grass skirt, and wondering what her next bushtucker-style challenge might be. Their thunder is almost stolen by Jason Thorpe's wonderful turn as a Tourettish parrot, injecting much needed comic asides and underlining the extent of the newly self-named Ermintrude/Daphne's psychological journey by parroting her own earlier ignorance back to her as she gains knowledge.
But if this reviewer felt that the play was a kind of over-familiar mashup of Mutiny on the Bounty, Paul Gauguin's paintings and Philip Pullman's Lyra re-imagined in the South Seas, the audience loved it, roaring their approval as the lights went up. It's a splendid evening for the bright teenager otherwise relentlessly glued to their phone, but a little more light and shade would be nice for those who completed their rite of passage many moons ago.