"Nation" proffers more effort than enjoyment.
There’s nothing a cup of tea can’t put right, don’t you think?” So says prim, shipwrecked Victorian teen Daphne while attempting to settle cultural differences with barely clad islander Mau. It will, alas, take more than a cup of tea to put “Nation” right. Director/designer Melly Still marshals 27 doubling actors, five musicians, inventive puppets and enough impressive special effects to give James Cameron pause, but “Nation” proffers more effort than enjoyment.
Adapting the young people’s book by bestselling fantasy-fiction writer Terry Pratchett, Mark Ravenhill — a playwright new to the business of novel dramatization — initially falls foul of what TV scribe Andrew Davies outlined when adapting “Middlemarch.” Handling multiple plot strands, Davies argued, was like traveling with three heavy suitcases: You’re constantly forced to put one down to move forward, then have to keep returning to collect the one behind.
The separate strands of “Nation” consist of Daphne (Emily Taaffe) washed ashore by a tsunami on an unknown Pacific island, Mau (Gary Carr) and his islanders’ back story, the hidden survival of Daphne’s wicked former butler and the tribe he meets, plus two other boat crew members who survive elsewhere. And, very late on, Daphne’s father, who is 139th in line to the British throne. Ravenhill dutifully presents all parties but cannot overcome an energy-sapping amount of exposition.
Action does eventually begin to move forward as plucky, scientifically inclined Daphne becomes part of island life and the grass-skirted islanders warm towards the young woman from the land of “the trouser men.” Yet despite her growing friendship with Mau — a character spouting ideas about responsibility and growing up while remaining dramatically underdeveloped — the temperature fails to rise until late in the second half as everyone finally converges.
Much of the problem stems from the story’s episodic nature. Scenes have equal weight, and with too little at stake or problems too suddenly solved, momentum sags. And with not a speck of subtext for audiences to latch onto, it’s uninvolving. What intermittently engages is neither situation nor character but spectacle.
The puppetry is imaginative and, at its best, the National Theater production’s visuals move fluidly from three to two dimensions. Beneath Paul Arditti’s sound design, a drowning man tips out of a boat on to the stage and appears to sink beneath waves projected across three giant frames that form the back wall.
But other elements, notably the busy lighting, flat choreography and depressingly bland songs, fail to create truly distinctive or memorable worlds.
Even elaborately staged set-pieces like the big reveal of the island’s hidden ancient history sacrifice dramatic tension to discussions of anti-Imperial geo-politics and science versus religion. The strain in the actors’ voices as they make their arguments reveals the effort involved in lifting the dialogue. The overall effect is of a production more intent on illustrating than dramatizating.
What’s missing is the bracing theatrical rigor of “War Horse,” the previous family hit at this address that continues to do boffo business in its West End transfer. The latter harnessed equally enormous resources, but kept audiences enthralled by creating space to activate the imagination.
If comparisons are odious, there’s an excuse. Director Still initiated the National’s genre of Christmas family extravaganza with her local runaway hit “Coram Boy” (which then tanked on Broadway).
The National’s track record should shift tickets (the show will also be beamed around the world as part of the NT Live program), but as Still whirls the Olivier Theater’s revolve yet again, it’s clear she has hit the law of diminishing returns. The fact that the sharpest, wittiest performance comes from Jason Thorpe as a droll, beautifully pert parrot, a character outside the action, speaks volumes.