It was all very strange. There the Whingers were at a preview of Mark Ravenhill‘s adaptation of Terry Pratchett‘s Nation at the National Theatre last night when who should turn up? Why, nobody they knew! Not only on the level of the individual but – largely – in a generic sense too.
Yes, there was a sprinkling of the National Theatre grey haired faithfuls but there were also conspicuous numbers of people negotiating the complexities of allocated seating seemingly for the first time. And not a few youthful people – teenagers, as they used to be called. Hundreds of them in fact.
It was all very strange.*
To be honest, the Whingers weren’t quite sure what they were doing there themselves. Neither has ever read any Terry Pratchett nor had any inclination to do so. They also like Mark Ravenhill (from the little they know about him) and the idea of Mark Ravenhill more than they tend to like his plays and pantos (although we did enjoy Citizenship and The Bette Bourne Supremacy or whatever it was called).
Why were we there? Let’s call it a dogged commitment to open-mindedness in the face of all the evidence available to suggest that it practically never pays off.
Anyway, there we were. In the middle of an audience that SHRIEKED with excitement when the lights went down. Really. Shrieked.
It is 1860 and, as the blurb has it “two teenagers are thrown together by a tsunami that has destroyed Mau’s village and left Daphne shipwrecked on his South Pacific island, thousands of miles from home”.
Despite its mostly ploddingly linear narrative aimed at children, frankly there were great swathes of it that the Whingers really didn’t follow. Did Mau cause his entire island’s population to die by getting them to take their teletubbies masks off? If so, why? And why did they do it? Why did they have to pick big stones up from the bottom of the sea? Why was Daphne casually amputating someone’s leg in the corner of one scene? We must have missed something along the way. Or possibly quite a few things. Which is strange because although the Whingers often complain about playwrights telling instead of showing, Nation may well cause us to revise that maxim. Quite everything seemed to be shown and it was all rather exhausting and quite long. Certainly the first half took longer than an hour. We cannot speak for the second half.
If it all started off a bit The Tempest, the Whingers – clutching at some familiar flotsam to give them some cultural buoyancy – were reminded of The Lion King, A Christmas Carol, The Dark Crystal and even Hair seemed to have arrived earlier than expected (albeit without a decent song). The choreography was partly attributed to the “Nation Company”, and it showed. Were they told just to wiggle their grass skirts and improvise? Some particularly discordant music during the pig suckling scene (don’t ask) made Phil wonder if Benjamin Britten had wandered over from The Habit of Art in the auditorium next door. The Australian talking parrot (which says “boobies” and things like that) was extremely irritating and we could have rustled up a more convincing costume in minutes.
The acting was pretty unimpressive though to be fair to the cast the script is less dialogue than proclamations. There’s an awful lot of declamatory shouting going on. Some of the natives, who seem to have been styled after Ross Noble, seek refuge in the new country. “Will you turn us away or share your nation?”, they rather pompously demand. Phil got a a distinct whiff of worthiness.
But we did like some of the staging. Hats off to Melly Still for the brilliantly staged underwater scenes, a good storm and a decent tsunami.
But mostly we were all at sea. The gusty gales of young lungs laughing reminded the Whingers of watching a sketch on Crackerjack! and when you hear gasps from the audience at the word “shit” you know that you are in someone else’s brave new world (that has young people with very implausible hairdos in’t. Particularly the boys.
So, we’ll leave it for the young people to enjoy (which they clearly did) and put our bemusement down to crotchety middle age. Certainly this will be a popular play for schools to perform – a large cast, multi-racial, many opportunities for stage craft, lots of generic non-speaking islander roles for the too-many girls. It’s just one more reason for the Whingers to be grateful that they do not have any children.
* 15-25 year olds can see it for £5 or even for free.
The Whingers decamped to their club where they were treated to an unexpected but very impressive display of close up prestidigitation. Ah, how they appreciated some real magic at last. And as it was right under their sceptical probosci proved even more three dimensional than the Queen or Derren Brown in 3D.