Review: Nation

Nation at the National Theatre

Is it all a load of fantasy?

There are two ways of looking at the production of Nation now showing at the National Theatre. First, you can see it as what it is being advertised as by the National … that of a “spectacular family show”, you can just take it as this, and forget all your pre-concieved ideas of what a good piece of theatre is about. Or you can see it with a critical eye, and look beyond the visual affects and see the chaos that lies beneath.

How does someone take a piece of fantasy and craft it in such a manner that it is relayed in a theatrical sense, without it coming across as sheer nonsense? The National Theatre has actually had quite a good track record for setting new heights in their work of fantasy adaptation, one look at the popular adaptation of the Phillip Pullmans series, ‘His Dark Materials’ that graced the stage and went on a long tour proves that it can be done – and well.

So what went wrong here?

After several days mulling over my thoughts; for this production is not an easy one to digest; it comes in waves of information, in visual delight and a complicated script – I have concluded that perhaps it lies with the actual adaptation of text. Mark Ravenhill, one of our clear playwrights of the 21st century, whose previous work I have applauded time and time again, was given this mammoth task. How do you adapt a Terry Pratchett fantasy novel into a National Theatre “spectacular family show”, or more basic than that, into a working playscript?

Idenity is a big theme in Nation

Ravenhill at times captures the essence of Pratchetts story, with strong notions of what identity is between two different worlds, that of the British Empire and a ‘Barbarian Island’. Of course this is one of the themes running through the play, sorry, I mean ‘spectacle’… yet somehow Ravenhill just doesn’t fulfill the text in such a way that it translates well. It doesn’t bring the true magic of fantasy storytelling to the stage, instead… it brings something that for me, falls flat.

I think it’s safe to say that after the first half there are far too many questions that have been raised, and failed to be answered. Whilst I understand that plots are meant to be developed, it’s almost like Ravenhill has opened a can of worms and hasn’t quite caught them all yet to work into the story/plot.

Of course it’s not just Ravenhill’s writing that lets this show down – the musical interludes and songs are shocking. I’m sorry, but was there any need for the songs? They seemingly attempted to add a flare of musicality to the production, but failed to get anywhere with actors who clearly are not meant to be singers. It was such a shame that some of the ensemble singing wasn’t stronger, hell, there was a big enough cast for it to be!

One form of puppetry in Nation

The devices used in Nation are too extreme and too many, a revolving stage, puppetry, visual affects, projectors and exploding scenery to name but a few. Whilst I understand that part of translating this fantasy world comes across through the visual aspects, there seemed to be no limits on how far the direction was taken with the design. Melly Still the director of Nation really did let her imagination go wild with help from Mark Friend on set design, but has she not learnt to also know when the imagination runs away from logic?

Some of the visual material was fantastic, no denying that – especially that of the underwater video projections which were very stunning (a big thumbs up to Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, projection designers on this). Equally the way that the boats were represented on large cloth material (although done countless times before), actually brought a fresh burst of creativity to the mix, but this alone can’t bring the performance from the depths of “EEK”.

Emily Taaffe and Gary Carr

The acting was good, but not amazing, with Emily Taaffe as the British castaway figure of Daphne and Gary Carr as Mau the Island new-born Chief leading the production for the best part. Although admittedly I couldn’t quite believe that Taaffe was meant to be playing a 14 year old girl.. I’m sorry but my imagination couldn’t fathom this idea. Other notable praise for ‘good’ acting goes to an ensemble of energetic characters of natives, puppeteers and fine men and women.

Still as director has worked as best she could in this complex plot and miss-matched songs, to create a visually striking performance, but anything beyond this it lacks. It really is a shame. So whilst the National Theatre promote this as ‘family spectacle’ and whilst I’m sure it is enjoyable for children – for those of us who are looking at the National Theatre and thinking you represent our nation’s theatre… might just be disappointed.

Nation runs in the Oliver Theatre and is booking until 28 March 2010, see the National Theatre website for methods of booking.

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