Sunday, 31 January 2010

Nation by Terry Pratchett - as performed by the National Theatre

I said that I'd cheat and write two today.

Yesterday I dragged my poor, rather long suffering other half to see Nation by Terry Pratchett as adapted by Mark Ravenhill and directed by Melly Still.
I don't know how many of you have heard of the National Theatre Live project, but it's a wonderful scheme. I live in North Yorkshire which makes travelling to the National Theatre a bit of an expensive extravagance, which is really disappointing when there are shows that I'd like to see. However we've just seen the first series of the 'Live' shows, whereby one performance is broadcast to cinemas around the world. Love it!
To start with, I'm quite a big Pratchett fan, but haven't got round to reading Nation yet (massive 'to read' heap by the bed), my other half isn't a fan and has never read anything by him, but was intrigued by the live concept (and a little emotional blackmail from his girlfriend) and so agreed to come with me. I also tried to convince one of his friends who's a big Pratchett fan, but he declined due to universal panning by reviewers. It has to be said that I only read the reviews this morning, having seen it yesterday, and I was surprised to see such bad reviews, I really enjoyed it.

Nation tells the story of a parellel world. Mau, a South Pacific Island boy has just completed his trial to move him from boyhood to adulthood, but when he returns to his own island finds that his entire tribe has been wiped out by a Tsunami in his absence and he's left alone on the island. Daphne is a well spoken Victorian girl who has been shipwrecked by the same Tsunami. Neither Mau or Daphne understand each other, but they manage to communicate and start to build a nation, joined by islanders from surrounding islands.
Daphne (Emily Taaffe), Mau (Gary Carr) and Milton, a foul mouthed parrot (Jason Thorpe) probably hold the performance together. Gary Carr giving an excellent performance as the young man stuck between childhood and adulthood, not yet feeling that he deserves the title of adult because he hasn't been through the adult ceremony. Pratchett has said that this story grey from the image of a young boy stood on the beach cursing the gods, and it's easy to imagine that Carr's performance of this could be pretty close to what Pratchett imagine. Emily Taaffe performs a rather fiesty woman on the cusp of adulthood who has led a life controlled by her matriarchal grandmother, although it hasn't been the sheltered upbringing you would expect, her father having been keen on taking her to science lectures. Finally Jason Thorpe as Milton. Yes, he's a human playing a parrot - Thorpe does not play this role for realism, although his mannerisms and movements (especially his walk) are wonderful to watch, he symbolises a parrot, rather than trying for a realistic performance - and to my mind it fitted in very well. He is also the main comic relief of the performance.
I don't think I've ever seen anything directed by Melly Still before, but I quite enjoyed this, and was quite intrigued by some of the design. The ship wreck was interesting, the boat on water, there aren't many ways that you can perform this on stage, and I think we're unlikely to come up with a breathtaking suggestion any time soon, however the idea of showing the characters in the water as the ship broke up was a good idea and well done. There were three large screens around the stage and during the shipwreck water was projected on to the screens and the characters in the water were on wires behind them so that they floated and 'swam' as though in the water.
Puppets were also used to represent the animals on the island, including really creepy birds and a large and slightly scary wild hog, performed using different forms of puppets.
The second half continues with the creating of Nation but also with what's happened to other people who were on the ship with Daphne and landed on different islands, causing Daphne to face up to her behaviour and decisions since she's been on the island.
The ending was rather sad (didn't end how I expected it to at all, really should have read the book by now), and also well done. It would have been easy to make the ending unnecessarily twee and sweet, but it was well performed, both by Taaffe and Carr, and also by the rest of the cast.
Personally, contrary to what a lot of professional reviewers have said, I really enjoyed this and was really impressed, and that's without having quite the same live atmosphere. There were a couple of slightly dodgy shots at the beginning of the second half where there was a five second close up of one of the actors bottoms, but apart from that it was all very well run, including short videos and 'extras' during the interval.
When the performance finished most of the people in the audience applauded, as though they had actually been in the theatre, and I have to say that I'm looking back on this performance thinking that I saw it live, and I have to keep reminding myself that I wasn't actually in the same room as the performance, so I think this is a wonderful scheme that should be encouraged and continued. It fascinates me that I only found out about this through a news letter, there seemed to be no advertising for it in the cinema, to the point that when i went to book the tickets in advance I had to spend quite a long time describing it to the two lads behind the counter before one of them realised what I was asking for. And, for a cinema that probably held between 200 and 250 I don't think it was even half full.
On a final note, my other half, having just noticed that I'm writing this has just asked 'Are you being as harsh as those other reviewers?' When I said no he said 'Good, I thoroughly enjoyed it.' Although I have to admit that he did sound a little surprised by the fact. And I should probably mention Milton again, as I think he was Ben's favourite character.

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