Theatre review: Nation

Posted on: 14 December 2009 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews The National Theatre’s Christmas production of Nation.

Following the success of War Horse and Coram Boy hopes were high for The National Theatre’s Christmas production this year of Nation (Olivier auditorium), adapted by Mark Ravenhill from a novel by Terry Pratchett, but sadly if fails to live up to expectations.

A parallel world, 1860. 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. One wears next to nothing, the other a long white dress; neither speaks the other’s language, yet somehow they must learn to survive. As starving refugees gather, Daphne delivers a baby, milks a pig, brews beer and does battle with a mutineer. Mau fights cannibal raiders, discovers the world is round and questions the reality of his tribe’s fiercely patriarchal gods. Together they come of age, overseen by a foul-mouthed parrot, as they discard old doctrines to forge a new society.

Although touching on such important issues as imperial conceit, environmental apocalypse, the conflict between modern science and the appeal of religion and superstition, the story is actually pretty thin and its unfolding appears glib and confusing. There are echoes here of other classic desert island dramas such as The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe, as well as elements of wit and humanity, but it lacks sophistication and depth.

The NT ensemble perform well under Melly Still’s direction, in particular Gary Carr and Emily Taaffe as the two protagonists.

But what really lifts this production are the imaginative and visually eye-opening sets designed by Melly Still and Mark Friend, most notably translucent screens through which are glimpsed floating corpses, swimming dolphins and predatory man-eaters, not to mention fierce storms and giant waves - the approaching tsunami is most realistically staged. There are also sinister puppets (by Yvonne Stone), masks, music, god anchors, sharks, giant pigs and a man dressed as a parrot!

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium

When: plays in repertory until 28 March 2010

Box Office: 020 7452 3000

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