Saturday 20 December 2014

Treasure Island at the National, or The Shallow Comedic Version

Shows often have a moment which encapsulates either everything that's right with them, or everything that's wrong. A recent example was the extraordinary dance sequence in the final act of My Night with Reg. In the National's new adaptation of Treasure Island, the moment comes in Act Two during the fight for the stockade (well I say fight but two bullets is about your lot). Those who've read the book will recall that as he's directing the defence Captain Smollett is hit, but not killed. In this adaptation he dies, sprawled on the front of the Olivier stage. It isn't just the textual liberty, nor the one dimensional nature of the writing of him which makes the moment go for nothing, but the ridiculously overdone chest wound with which make-up and costumes curse him – from Row D of the Stalls it was wholly unconvincing. When death becomes ludicrous in a pirate play you have, I would suggest, got a problem.

Now it is a long time since I read Treasure Island. And maybe I am misremembering it. But my recollection is of something which was very tense and exciting, with a strong sense of threat and convincing violence. Almost from the word go, this adaptation plays it for laughs. If I say there's more chill in the delivery of the Black Spot in Muppet Treasure Island (incidentally a film I love) you'll appreciate that things have gone sadly wrong here. Actually, comparing this to the Muppet version of the story is generally instructive. There's plenty of comedy there too – think of Sam the Eagle's terribly unsafe jolly boat, or Fozzie Bear's hapless Trelawney, or Stadtler and Waldorf saving the film by saving the pig and the frog or...I could go on and on. But the difference is that all their sillinesses are part of much deeper characterisations. There's so much more to them than just the comedic moments – whether it's Bryony Lavery's script or Polly Findley's direction, this staged version fails to make any of its adult characters (with passing but not sustained exceptions for Long John Silver and Ben Gunn) into anything other than shallow butts of jokes. As a result, and distinctly unlike in the original, I never had the slightest doubt that Jim (or Jemima) would win through in the end, and, more seriously, I increasingly felt that the various adults deserved to be killed because they were behaving with such impressive stupidity. Is there now some rule that a children's show should have no convincing adult characters in it – the National might next time like to call to mind His Dark Materials, full of powerful, rounded adult characters – and consider whether this rule needs a rethink. Incidentally, it also should be noted, that the jokes in this are generally not funny enough – leave out the payoff of the Mr Grey running gag and Ben Gunn's double identity and the pickings are regrettably thin.

The Jim/Jemima confusion is also problematic. Lavery evidently wants to make a feminist point about girls having adventures, and not leaving things to the men (there's a particularly blunt line about the latter which other critics have remarked upon). But actually, Lavery lacks the courage of those sometimes expressed convictions. There's a thread of apology for the alteration of the hero's gender running through the whole show, summed up in grandmother suddenly addressing her as Jemima at the end. It actually reminded me a little of the all female Donmar Henry IV – I don't dispute that there should be more women in big roles, what I don't understand is why others who want to take action on this feel the need, having done so, to behave as if it needs to be justified or excused. If you're going to do it, just do it, and let it stand or fall on its own merits. In this case Patsy Ferran is giving a fine performance as Jim, and had the script not kept questioning her gender I don't think I should have been inclined to.

The design and staging does bring some moments of magic, although I did think the National might have run to some water once in the evening (this is after all a story all of which takes place either on the ocean or adjacent to it). The internals of the ship and the dismal nature of the island are both well captured, but the set can't lift the script on its own. There is one moment of absolute magic, which uses the vast Olivier space beautifully: Silver teaching Hawkins how to navigate by the stars, while the constellations light up the Olivier ceiling. Elsewhere, set and lighting touch on atmosphere too often unaided by script. John Tams's songs have nice moments, the rest of the incidental music is unexceptional.

Few of the performers are given much to work with. Ferran's Hawkins and Joshua James's Ben Gunn have the best of the writing and don't let it go to waste. Arthur Darvill's Long John Silver and, ironically, Helena Lymbery's Livesey do their best with what they're given but deserved better. The rest either make little impression or irritate (on the latter end of the spectrum we find the death of Red Ruth, and the existence of Silent Sue).

It could be argued that I am not the target audience for this show and maybe all the children present found it a beguiling couple of hours of entertainment. But I couldn't help thinking of Pixar films and the National's own His Dark Materials, works at least partly for children but with emotional punch, convincing threat and many well rounded characters of all ages. I'm fairly sure the novel Treasure Island has some of those virtues, it's a pity its adaptor seems ultimately to feel that today's children can't be expected to cope with them.

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