Nation (National Theatre 23/2/10) 28 February 2010

What took so long? I hear you ask. I had a £10 Travelex ticket for Nation back in November, but had to give it up when I took ill and wasn't able to make it. Well, I didn't really give it up but was able to bank it as a credit with the National Theatre. After this time I became more aware of the buzz surrounding the show - not really good. To be honest I don't recall anything extremely negative or damning but more - perplexing. As a result, I didn't rebook.

As the production continued into the new year I noticed more and more promotion with ticket offer popping up and I immediately thought 'that's not a good sign'. A week or two ago they made an offer that I couldn't resist - £5 for the best available seat. When I checked online I saw I could get a primo stalls seat in the Olivier for £5 I took the chance and booked. I figured that if I didn't like the production I wouldn't feel I was cheated.

Nation is directed and co-designed by Melly Still. I first came across Melly in the late 90's when she - along with her then partner, the then Artistic Director of the Young Vic, Tim Supple, were renowned for putting on the best productions at Christmas. These productions were revolutionary at the time partly because they provided a Christmas entertainment that wasn't panto and appealed to both children and adults. Grimm Tales and More Grimm Tales set the standard by which most Young Vic Christmas productions from that point modeled themselves on to some extent. These productions were based on stories or fairy tales that had somewhere along the way been Disney-fied. What they did so well was go back to the original story which usually included elements of blood and guts along with mild ribald humour and never shied away from presenting those elements to audiences of all ages. What they found was the young children were not only not scared by the violence but really enjoyed it.

Melly and Tim created true theatrical experiences - there was usually a strong storytelling narrative, with the actors narrating bits directly to the audience as well as scenes being acting out, as well as live music to accompany the action. Additionally they used economic theatrical devices normally seen in physical theatre productions that engaged the imagination such as using a large blue cloth, stretched out and held by the actors to replicate an ocean or large body of water. These were not just productions but theatre experiences and events held within the confines of the intimate Young Vic theatre space. If someone had their hand chopped off, you could see it wasn't real although there would be loads of blood but you were thrilled just the same. When the actors narrated the story or offered a brief aside to the audience, you felt it was intended for you to hear. The intimate space allowed for this wonderful audience actor interaction.

As I mentioned this model for children / family shows continued past the Tim and Melly productions - most notably in Dominic Cooke's Arabian Nights which has recently been revived - and has come around again full circle as Melly Still has gone 'solo'. Melly had a hit with Coram Boy at the National a few years back (it didn't do as well in it's Broadway transfer) and although I didn't see it I got the impression it had many of the same elements found in those early productions. And then came Nation.

Unlike those earlyYoung Vic productions Nation has been adapted by someone not known for adaptations or Melly's particular style of direction - Mark Ravenhill - who to date is best known for writing the controversial Royal Court hit Shopping and Fucking. That's not to say that a playwright should stick to what they're best known for, but you have to admit, he's a surprise choice. You could also say that when the National produced His Dark Materials as their Christmas production they were taking a very risky gamble by adapting a complicated and controversial book for the stage but as we all know now, that gamble paid off. I thought that Nation would be in the same vein, but alas this gamble doesn't pay off and there are some tangible reasons for this.

The National's Olivier Theatre is known for being a bit of a beast of a space. There's no proscenium which opens it up and brings in the audience to an extent but it's quite cavernous and its productions need to be big in order to fill it. Nation is big. There's a central 'island' which is also half a globe that rotates and three large framed screens behind it which are used for projections as well as providing alternate views of events through puppet work and actors on wires. Although I can see why they are used, you have to reach the rear seats, but it means the production becomes more literal.

During one scene at the start the now obligatory blue cloth comes out with a miniature boat in the centre to replicate a storm at sea. Behind it and behind the screens we see actors on wires plunging into the sea. For me it's a matter of having your cake and eating it too. On one level we have theatrical invention and on the other there's an almost cinematic experience. When this happens on stage I find it difficult to suspend disbelief and the pure theatrical elements just appear false.

On that note, there're dual elements in the structure of the play itself. I've never read the Terry Pratchett source novel but from what I understand it touches on many themes and is complex in thought. It's near impossible to ever translate all of a novel's elements to a stage production so what Mark Ravenhill did, which seems right to me, was just use the basic storyline - two young people from two very different cultures, both having lost their foundations - the girl, British Daphne, through a shipwreck which leaves her stranded on a remote Island with a boy, Mau, who is the only survivor from his nation - learn to communicate, grow up and forge a new nation. There are other elements thrown into the mix - the islanders religion and the ideologies of the Daphne's conservative middle class family who are searching for her. Unfortunately, I feel the Mr Ravenhill has tried too much to stay faithful to the book.

There's a sense that he went through and picked out important moments that would satisfy both sides - fans of the novel and the theatrical story. Ultimately what we get is a strong set up with all the characters intentions revealed and then a series of scenes and events that sometimes seem unrelated to the whole. I think there may have also been a fear of being too explicit in his dialogue, of having the characters state what is happening or narrate the story. Unfortunately in this sort of play, that's an important element, as there is a fairy tale 'moral' conclusion. The character arc is either missing or is not clear. We get a general sense of how some of the scenes and adventures contribute to the characters development, but when they tell us in the end (with some really bad dialogue I might add - many around me couldn't stop giggling) you have to wonder why they didn't let us know earlier or at least give us some sign posts. Under normal circumstances this would be a no go area but this sort of production demands it.

The old Melly Still /Tim Supple structure is there but the direct narration element is gone as was an attempt to incorporate it into the dialogue, which didn't work. There is one character that spurts rude comments and slightly comic asides - the parrot which is played by a human. It's somewhat funny but seems more necessary to break up the seriousness of the play than make any considerable contibution to the story.

Lastly, there is live music by Adrian Sutton (Coram Boy and War Horse) which is pretty unmemorable and sometimes turns into a little sing song by the natives of the island. Irritatingly so. It doesn't move the story forward or shed any light on the Islanders lives than we already knew. I think it could have been stronger without the songs.

Basically, it just didn't work. It looked great and the actors seemed to be enjoying themselves which is aways infectious, but it couldn't figure out what Nation was supposed to be - storytelling or straight ahead narrative. It fell somewhere in the middle and neither was strong enough to connect with the audience. I'm glad I saw it this late in the run (it's only on for a month more I think) because I know I'm not seeing a work in progress. Although I wasn't bored or clock watching (2 hours and 45 minutes!) it just wasn't engaging or clear enough for me to say I enjoyed it.