[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/47042?ns=guardian&pageName=What+to+say+about+...+Nation%3AArticle%3A1310682&ch=Culture&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Terry+Pratchett+%28Author%29%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Leo+Benedictus&c7=09-Nov-26&c8=1310682&c9=Article&c10=Feature%2CReview&c11=Culture&c13=What+to+say+about+%28series%29&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FCulture%2FTerry+Pratchett[/img]With its curious mix of panache and piety, Terry Pratchett's tropical fantasy meets a tsunami of abuse from the critics
On Tuesday evening, all the critics went to the National with party hats on. Being theatre critics, and mindful of their incognitos, they were imaginary hats, of course, but no less sincerely worn. They were off to see this year's big Christmas family show, a tropical fantasy from Terry Pratchett that rejoices in the awesome name of Nation. Everybody hoped that it would follow on the rich festive form established by its predecessors War Horse, Coram Boy and His Dark Materials.
"Sad to report, then," Benedict Nightingale says in the Times, "that Mark Ravenhill's adaptation … doesn't quite match their power, imagination or invention … The narrative can be confusing, the political correctness irksome, and much else … wishful and sentimental." And indeed the play, which concerns itself with the juxtaposed coming-of-age stories of South Sea islander Mau and his shipwrecked Victorian consort Daphne, does sound rather curious.
"Mau and Daphne feel like crude counters in an exercise in politically correct sermonising," Paul Taylor complains in the Independent, which is not normally too bothered about that kind of thing. "[And] a lot of the show," he continues, "with its banal grass-skirted song and dance and its civic studies slogans … lapses too easily into pious proclamations."
To nobody's surprise, this PC piety was not popular either in the Daily Heil, where Quentin Letts got cross for the silent majority. "For its Christmas family show, the Royal National Theatre has come up with a play containing death, witch-doctors, post-colonial guilt and some bad language," he fulminates. (Note that pointedly indignant "Royal".) "The whole thing seems horribly misconceived, owing more to clumsy propaganda than Yuletide entertainment."
And even the Telegraph's anonymous reviewer, who came about as close as anyone to loving Nation, found time to put the boot in. "There are moments when the South Sea islanders singing and dancing in their grass skirts resemble the kind of cabaret act you might encounter in a five-star Hawaii hotel," says the person I suspect is Charles Spencer. "The puppetry seems crude in comparison to War Horse; and Adrian Sutton's music is both undistinguished and instantly forgettable."
So in the end, the play's excellent design (by director Melly Still) seems to be the only straw left for all involved to cling to. "Ravishing," is Taylor's word for it. "The visual impact is considerable," is what Nightingale has to say. "It is all staged with a hectic panache," pronounces the Guardian's Michael Billington, who is otherwise quite open about having no idea of what was actually going on. "Still and her co-designer, Mark Friend, have created a stage dominated by three translucent screens through which we glimpse floating corpses, swimming dolphins, predatory man-eaters." Which sounds like carnage to me. Perfect for the kids, in other words.
Do say: You know Britain's colonial history? Sorry about that.
Don't say: Look, if everyone's forgiven the Germans already, surely we can forgive the Victorians too?
The reviews reviewed: If I want to be preached at, I'll go to midnight mass.
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Guardian: What to say about ... Nation
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