Review – Nation by Terry Pratchett via Mark Ravenhill, National Theatre

Tuesday 17 November 2009

nation_blogIt 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.


31 Responses to “Review – Nation by Terry Pratchett via Mark Ravenhill, National Theatre”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    1. I liked the parrot.
    2. Oh yeah. The random amputation. And then the guy with his leg being hacked off sings. Done much better in Silence: the Musical, which BTW is coming to the Above the Stag in January and you must see.
    3. The 2nd half can be scientifically proven to be better than the first, because it is shorter.
    4. The kids seemed to be liking it? I was wondering. Glad somebody did. Me, I want my money back.

  2. What a grumpy pair. C’mon, if you are going to see a show based on a Terry Pratchett books, what do you expect? The same kind of audience who would go to see “The Duchess of Malfi”??

    Anything that gets teenagers into the theatre is a Good Thing (as long as they don’t sit right behind me and spend the entire performance texting, like they did at a production of “The Tempest” a couple of years back).

    Besides, this is a classic example of a show where the production process could best be described as “Chucked Onto The Stage” – the book was only published early this year, and Mr. Pratchett needs all the money he can get to pursue his court case. You know, the one he took out against the NHS because it denied him free access to treatment for his Alzheimer’s Disease. Because, having sold squidillions of books around the entire world and raking it it hand over fist, he thinks he’s still entitled to free healthcare.

    Oooooh, now watch the message board light up.

  3. Shakes Says:

    The parrot must go! To begin with the kids laughed and giggled when he said ‘knickers’ and ‘bottoms’. Then his language deteriorated into ‘shits’ and ‘arseholes’ (lots of those) and he started interrupting everyone, so much so that the woman sitting next to me shouted ‘Oh shut up’ and we all shouted back ‘Go for it girl’. Got the impression that the parrot’s only function is to lift the language to ‘adult’ levels.

    Step two is get a professional choreographer. It all reminded me of African war dances as seen in Hollywood B-movies circa 1935 and reinterpreted in some show in the Village Hall. From where I was seated in the stalls I could see a couple of the chorus swapping glances that said ‘this is truly awful’ as they ran off giggling into the wings.

    The central tortoise-back dome should be lowered. The rake is so steep that several members of cast had literally to watch their steps as others slithered around. The stage revolve turned for no reason other than ‘we have a revolve so lets use it’.The drum stage could have been used to good effect, The two palm tree trunks (beloved of desert isle cartoonists) were pointless (sorry, that wretched parrot once or twice did climb to his nest). If the Set Designer was not also the Director things might have been better.

    Finally, take a hatchet to the text. I have seldom seen so many people looking at their watches throughout act 1 or ask ‘ what was that all about’ when the lights came up for the interval (the break for which occurs at the feeble line ‘There is nothing that can’t be sorted out over over a nice cup of tea’). Here’s hoping a lot of tea will be consumed before Press Night.

    • Kellie Says:

      I think the parrot was there as a way of portraying what is going through Dafne’s mind. The only reason that he said random “naughty” words was to give him an interesting and engaging character 🙂

  4. Luvvies_Daaahlings Says:

    The second half was most definitely better- I left at the interval!

  5. loumay Says:

    OH I knew this would happen. When I heard they were doing this I just knew it wouldnt work. I love Pratchetts books and of all of them (and there are quite a few now) this seems to be the least likely one to work on stage. I really hope people don’t write Pratchett off on the basis of this adaptation because he really is better than that

  6. CedriCeCCentriC Says:

    Terrible! I really wanted to leave at the interval, but then I would have missed the kitch fairy lights dolphin.

    I loved Melly Still’s Coram Boy though.

  7. Sonia Jacks Says:

    “Nation” is an insult to the sophistication of the average teenager – really dumbed down drama. I have seen better productions written by teachers and performed by youngsters in both primary and secondary schools. I have seen Coram Boy and Warhorse that were aimed at a similar age group; both were a tribute to the National and recognised as such by adults and children alike. Sadly “Nation” is not in the same class. The script is weak, the plot confused, there is lots of shouting, no good songs and the best thing one can say is that we liked to parrot. I too noticed many people looking at their watches and I considered leaving at the interval but I could not believe that it would not get better. It didn’t.

  8. Nick M Says:

    I regretably missed the first 10 minutes (a great shame as the set designer in me would have enjoyed seeing the tsunami i’m sure). Despite criticisms of the parrot I soon twigged that that’s what he was, despite not being there to hear him introduced as such.

    If memory serves me right, people who left in the interval missed two very funny scenes in act 2; scenes of such oddness that they went some way to justifying the existence of the play as a whole. These scenes were the ‘fake’ trial scene and the truly mad coronation scene.

  9. Bryony McBabs Says:

    I saw Nation last night, and I’m 17. Although this was aimed at teenagers, I have never seen so much rubbish in my life.
    I was really disappointed to be honest, the plot was confusing and as I was with a group of 40 other people they had no idea what was going on either.
    The dancing was ridiculous, some of the characters insisted on shouting all their lines, I can only give credit to the scenery and set.
    However, if you’re looking for a fulfilling drama…this is not it.

  10. Tia Maria Says:

    The optimism of the piece is wonderful. Here at last is a positive view of community and human relationships which is all too rare and above all very welcome in these dark times. I saw it in preview and loved it. It’s a wonderful show and will be taking my eight-year old to see it.

  11. Uncle Sam Says:

    Why is everybody so negative about the play? It is entertaining, it is funny, it has spectacular special effects and an amazing stage design. And those who found the plot confusing should pay better attention to what´s happening on stage than looking at other people in the audience. I haven´t read the book and found the plot clear.
    Oh! Nick M.: Next get in time to the theatre. It is very rude to turn up late to a performance.

    • Kellie Says:

      Im so thankful that someone agrees with me 🙂 i thought it was a wonderful and breathtaking performance, i may be going to see it again and i think all of these depressive people should be more imaginative 😀

  12. Uncle Henry B. Says:

    Honestly – I think you’re all a bunch of moaning curmudgeons – Scrooge himself is more cheerful than you! Ok – I’m not saying the play isn’t without its cheesy moments – but for two and a half hours of uplifitng fun and infectious and inventive energy, it can’t be beat….what’s so wrong with a Great Night Out for Christmas?

  13. Clair Says:

    I’m a huge fan of Pratchett’s and I really loved this adaptation, which for me felt full of magic and great stuff.

    Having said that, I can understand why people who hadn’t read the book before hand might have been a bit confused, but I intend to go and see it again, I enjoyed it that much.

  14. Alan H Says:

    Wish I had seen these reviews before I went last night. We were hoping for something that worked for adults as well as children, e.g. Coram Boy. But all the negative comments above are only too true, except that we liked the parrot. Barmy banal confusing plot, music at the level of a happy clappy church service, astonishingly mediocre dancing, dubious anthropology. The evening was relieved only by imaginative staging, an enthusiastic cast, appreciative children in the audience, and the parrot.

  15. Jason Evens Says:

    Oh dear. I am SO looking forward to seeing this in January now.

  16. Rosa Maciewski Says:

    This was one of the worst shows I have ever seen. TOTAL RUBBISH. Bad acting, terrible writing, naff music, just a jumble of trash.

    This is the epitome of how a show should not be.

  17. The Hardings Says:

    We’ve just come back from seeing Nation. Really disappointed. The worst thing we’ve seen at The National. Maybe we’re being a bit too PC but did anyone else find it patronising and racist?

    • BryonyMcBabs Says:

      yes yes yes yes 😐

      • A Clown Says:

        Why racist? Perhaps you mean culturally insensitive, but then it is a fantasy piece, not set on our Earth, so I didn’t think it needed to represent any particular tribe accurately. But what do you mean by racist, I’m genuinely interested.

    • Kellie Says:

      I dnt understand why you think it is racist? In a production you wouldnt use a boy to play a girl or vice versa… so why would you use a white man to play an african man?

  18. Barry1106 Says:

    We, 2 adults and 14 year old went to see Nation yesterday. Absolutely Brilliant. I stumbled across Whingers website as was looking for a picture of the pig so I could rave about it to my work colleagues. I am a regular National Theatre goer and I am now going to see what the Whingers say about Time and the Conways which we saw recently at the National, that was truly awful and we did walk out after the second interval.

  19. Darcy Girl Says:

    I am glad I did not read the West End Whinger review before I saw the play. I watched it in January in HD at the theatre in Devonshire Mall in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. There were less than fifteen people in the theatre. I believe there would have been much more if people had not read the reviews. I was not familiar with the source book or the author or the playwright. I was simply pleased to have the opportunity in Canada to see a play producted on a London stage. I was not disappointed. As a playwright myself, I loved how the story developed and its multimedia presentation. The play itself is an excellent teaching tool for teachers who could make parrellels to English history. I do hope this play comes out on DVD and is made available for sale in North America. Please send me an email if and when this happens. Congratulations for all involved – actors and those behind the scene. Very well done. I do hope you have a long run.

  20. Peter Johnstone Says:

    I can’t believe all the jaded people in this thread, desperate to get their miserable views aired about this production.

    I went along to see it in HD at my local arthouse cinema, in Liverpool. It was almost packed out and people really enjoyed it! It was a fun bit of escapism, easy to follow (how could anyone of found it confusing?) interesting set design, and well executed.

    As for it being ‘the worst etc…’ you should have seen ‘The Devil Rides Out – The Musical’. Nothing comes remotely close.


  21. Kellie Says:

    Im only 15, i went to see that production for my drama GSCE. I disagree with most of the things you said. To answer your questions…

    1.Did Mau cause his entire island’s population to die by getting them to take their teletubbies masks off? If so, why?
    No he didnt cause his population to die, the tsunami did. It was Locaha acting as his population in order to manipulate him.

    2.Why did they have to pick big stones up from the bottom of the sea?
    Their grandfathers had told them their whole lives that there were 3 stones under the sea and it was part of their religion. so Mau went under the sea to find these stones to prove that there is actually 4 and the grandfathers lied and the religion os not real.

    3.Why was Daphne casually amputating someone’s leg in the corner of one scene?
    Well any educated person would know that in the 1800’s amputating a leg if it was severely injured was what was thought to be the cure. Therefore that is what Dafne knew to do and so that is what she did.

    If i am 15 and i understand these questions then, in my opinion, it was a good production and you are wrong 🙂

  22. Xenophon Says:

    This was a MASSIVE dissapointment. The actors had a rare 8 WEEKS of rehearsal, as opposed to the customary 4, and they came out with well…filth.

    If not for the National Theatre budget, revolve and prowess in the technical side of theatre the play would have been poorly acted, drab and boring. The acting as, at best, abismal, the puppetry crude and the use of ‘Twinkle’, a black puppet doll resembling a native african baby, was tactless.

    The National shouldn’t have tried to follow the path of War Horse by adapting another novel and trying to make it a spectacular. War Horse’s success took 4 years of prior rehearsing and planning. Whoever’s genius plan it was to try and do with ‘Nation’ what the National did with ‘War Horse’ completely backfired.

    I’d recommend to anyone thinking about watching it to well err..not. Your money would be better spent buying tickets for War Horse or the Lion King if you’re wanting a family day out to the theatre.

  23. Amanda Says:

    It was true to Terry Pratchett, from the rather fabulous presence of Gary Carr down to the cheesy parrot and the pig–not to mention the kind of creepy puppet baby Twinkle. While the story was simplified from the book, I thought the production was impressive. I did think the first act could have been tightened up a bit, but given the confusion expressed by those who haven’t read the book, perhaps not. If you don’t like (or get) Terry Pratchett’s work, you probably won’t like this; if you do, you most likely will.

  24. Fraser Says:

    I saw the film of the play yesterday in Christchurch, New Zealand. I suspect I’m not the target audience of this blog; I have very little experience of theatre, and I loved Nation.

    The production was stunning, the script and music were quite competent, and the acting was powerful, if not highly nuanced. This is a story about the big existential questions, and it’s written in capital letters. It’s a story for the young, who haven’t had their emotions cauterised by cynicism.

    I’ll concede that there are some confusing bits in the plot, and I do recommend reading the book first.

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