The National Theatre’s latest Christmas show, hoping no doubt to be as successful as past hit productions His Dark Materials and the still trotting War Horse, is Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s island adventure Nation.
Set in the 1800s, perky young Ermintrude Fanshaw (Emily Taaffe) finds herself leaving her domineering Grandmother to sail across the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean to visit her scientist Father. Branded as bad luck by the rough and ready crew, their superstitions are confirmed as the ship is caught in the middle of an epic storm and Ermintrude is left shipwrecked on a strange island with only Milton (Jason Thorpe), an expletive spouting, stony-faced, Jedward-haired parrot, for company.
Nearby a young boy, Mau (Gary Carr), has completed his ritual to enter manhood only to return home to find his whole tribe destroyed by a tidal wave. Discovering the strange Victorian girl with her bizarre habits and unintelligible language on the beach, they are forced to create a new nation together, reassessing their ideas of life and history on the way.
A coming of age story, prissy Ermintrude’s transformation into the feisty and independent, grass skirt-wearing Daphne goes hand in hand with Mau’s journey to manhood, finding himself chief of the ever growing tribe as survivors from other destroyed islands arrive, with his soul still in limbo between man and boy. Angry with their highest god Emo for such destruction, all his prior knowledge of magic and the gods is thrown into question by the arrival of Daphne and her faith in western medicine, science and astronomy.
Nation, however, portrays a world where magic and superstition can exist in harmony with science, with Daphne and Mau both experiencing first hand the mysteries of death and the abilities of spells and witchdoctors, but also the science behind the stars. Religion and science finding a way to fit together, as a girl who is 140th to the crown finds she can belong with an inquisitive tribe chief who she once described as a ‘noble savage’.
In Melly Still’s incredible designs, which use toy boats and sheets to portray terrifying storms and allows the characters to find themselves submerged in the depths of the sea in the cleverest of underwater staging, the story truly comes alive. Similarly Dinah Collin’s costumes transform Nation’s ensemble not only to wild haired natives with elaborate tribal masks and tattoos, but to bony, sinister 'Grandfather' birds that pick at corpses not yet thrown into the sea to become dolphins as their traditions promise.
All the classic elements of an epic family drama are found in Nation, with danger at every turn, the stirrings of young love between two great heroes, and the excitement of adventures, battles and new discovery, all mixed in with a healthy dose of magic and imagination.