Nation, at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre

promise me you'll never wear trousers

Following the National Theatre’s hit family shows of His Dark Materials, Coram Boy, and War Horse, comes Nation. Mark Ravenhill, who wrote Shopping and Fucking, has with mixed success adapted Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation for the stage.

It is the 1860s and, like The Tempest, the play opens with a tsunami. The young aristocratic Daphne, whose father is 139th in line to England’s throne, meets the handsome leader Mau, who is head of the island, as she is swept ashore. What ensues is a series of funny introductions to customs: Daphne introduces Mau to English tea drinking, “one lump or two”, and Mau introduces Daphne to drinking water, “you must spit in it.”

The play has child-friendly (and somewhat dull) moralising apt for a pre-Christmas show: “It’s hard work to work out who the enemy is,” says Daphne, admitting her own failings in thinking of Mau as a threat to her, since it is the English who are more of a threat to her and the nation on the island. The Victorian women are represented as figures of fun with their traditions, and it’s the island women who have a “woman’s wisdom”, courageousness, and quick thinking. So as Daphne moves from being a Victorian lady to a grass-skirted local, and her father returns, she has to make a decision: love or duty?

Gary Carr as Mau is excellent, and Emily Taaffe as the young teenager Daphne moves from adorable to irritating. The play succeeds with director Melly Still and Mark Friend’s grand stage perfect for an adventure story: it revolves, has three huge screens, and plenty of fairy lights that make the Dante-like underworld look romantic rather frightening. Everything is larger than life: the singing, dancing, puppets, waves, gunshots, statues, and thunder.

This year the National’s Death and the King’s Horseman and The Observer offer warnings about the effects of colonialism in Africa, and Nation does the same but in an unnamed South Pacific Island. The National’s choice of productions can be seen as a warning in itself: black actors are frequently cast off in a colonial past whilst Asian actors are mingling with their modern identity in Black Album or Mixed Up North that is currently playing at the National.

Nation is Pirates of the Caribbean meets Lost, and would wow a young audience with its spectacular set rather than story. What the story shows however is that the Empire, even with its post-colonial guilt, can still strike back. Three times.

Runs till 28 March 2010.

To see or not to see: * * *


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