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Review: Nation

Posted on 27 November 2009 by A Younger Theatre

Nation at the National Theatre

Is it all a load of fantasy?

There are two ways of looking at the production of Nation now showing at the National Theatre. First, you can see it as what it is being advertised as by the National … that of a “spectacular family show”, you can just take it as this, and forget all your pre-concieved ideas of what a good piece of theatre is about. Or you can see it with a critical eye, and look beyond the visual affects and see the chaos that lies beneath.

How does someone take a piece of fantasy and craft it in such a manner that it is relayed in a theatrical sense, without it coming across as sheer nonsense? The National Theatre has actually had quite a good track record for setting new heights in their work of fantasy adaptation, one look at the popular adaptation of the Phillip Pullmans series, ‘His Dark Materials’ that graced the stage and went on a long tour proves that it can be done – and well.

So what went wrong here?

After several days mulling over my thoughts; for this production is not an easy one to digest; it comes in waves of information, in visual delight and a complicated script – I have concluded that perhaps it lies with the actual adaptation of text. Mark Ravenhill, one of our clear playwrights of the 21st century, whose previous work I have applauded time and time again, was given this mammoth task. How do you adapt a Terry Pratchett fantasy novel into a National Theatre “spectacular family show”, or more basic than that, into a working playscript?

Idenity is a big theme in Nation

Ravenhill at times captures the essence of Pratchetts story, with strong notions of what identity is between two different worlds, that of the British Empire and a ‘Barbarian Island’. Of course this is one of the themes running through the play, sorry, I mean ‘spectacle’… yet somehow Ravenhill just doesn’t fulfill the text in such a way that it translates well. It doesn’t bring the true magic of fantasy storytelling to the stage, instead… it brings something that for me, falls flat.

I think it’s safe to say that after the first half there are far too many questions that have been raised, and failed to be answered. Whilst I understand that plots are meant to be developed, it’s almost like Ravenhill has opened a can of worms and hasn’t quite caught them all yet to work into the story/plot.

Of course it’s not just Ravenhill’s writing that lets this show down – the musical interludes and songs are shocking. I’m sorry, but was there any need for the songs? They seemingly attempted to add a flare of musicality to the production, but failed to get anywhere with actors who clearly are not meant to be singers. It was such a shame that some of the ensemble singing wasn’t stronger, hell, there was a big enough cast for it to be!

One form of puppetry in Nation

The devices used in Nation are too extreme and too many, a revolving stage, puppetry, visual affects, projectors and exploding scenery to name but a few. Whilst I understand that part of translating this fantasy world comes across through the visual aspects, there seemed to be no limits on how far the direction was taken with the design. Melly Still the director of Nation really did let her imagination go wild with help from Mark Friend on set design, but has she not learnt to also know when the imagination runs away from logic?

Some of the visual material was fantastic, no denying that – especially that of the underwater video projections which were very stunning (a big thumbs up to Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, projection designers on this). Equally the way that the boats were represented on large cloth material (although done countless times before), actually brought a fresh burst of creativity to the mix, but this alone can’t bring the performance from the depths of “EEK”.

Emily Taaffe and Gary Carr

The acting was good, but not amazing, with Emily Taaffe as the British castaway figure of Daphne and Gary Carr as Mau the Island new-born Chief leading the production for the best part. Although admittedly I couldn’t quite believe that Taaffe was meant to be playing a 14 year old girl.. I’m sorry but my imagination couldn’t fathom this idea. Other notable praise for ‘good’ acting goes to an ensemble of energetic characters of natives, puppeteers and fine men and women.

Still as director has worked as best she could in this complex plot and miss-matched songs, to create a visually striking performance, but anything beyond this it lacks. It really is a shame. So whilst the National Theatre promote this as ‘family spectacle’ and whilst I’m sure it is enjoyable for children – for those of us who are looking at the National Theatre and thinking you represent our nation’s theatre… might just be disappointed.

Nation runs in the Oliver Theatre and is booking until 28 March 2010, see the National Theatre website for methods of booking.

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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Review: James Thiérrée, Raoul

Posted on 23 October 2009 by Jake Orr

I loath one man shows, with a passion. It’s like seeing someone you do not wish to see walking along the street and you quickly duck across to the other side of the road just to avoid them. I go to great lengths to avoid having much contact with a show or performance that lacks two people. The reason behind this is that a single person, a ‘one-man show’ just has the huge ability to fall onto its head. There is a defined make or break moment in each one man performance I’ve ever seen. That moment of, “Can this person actually keep me entertained for the whole running time… yes? No.”

With this in mind, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Raul at the Barbican Centre by the notorious James Thiérrée. For those that don’t know who this man is, (and don’t worry, I equally did not know until recently), he happens to be grandson of Charlie Chaplin, and the son of Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée. If anything, there was a lot to live up to in this performance, and I have to say, it was certainly one to catch my imagination.

A one-man show in the Barbican Theatre, that great expanse of a stage, it seemed all too surreal, or quite possibly the start of something I might regret watching. However, upon taking my seat, it became clear that this wasn’t just your average show.

James  Thierree in Roaul
James Thierree in Roaul

Huge white sheets, suspended from the flies, hung, drapped over piping, an odd assortment of shapes and sizes poking out in all directions from the stage that dominated every inch of the immense stage that is the Barbican Theatre. James Thiérrée suddenly appears running through the audience, climbing across seats before making his way up to the expanse of white sheets before him. With momentous music, and a sweeping of his arms, the sheets suddenly retract in a beautiful manner revealing a lead pipe structure. It is at this moment that I let out my first of many “wow”‘s.

Raoul is an odd performance piece, part comedy, part mime, a mixture of trickery of the eye and spectacular visual effects. Raoul is a symphony for the eyes. An oxymoron if you please. It is both spectacular in form as it is precise in concentrated details. Leading the eye to both be marveled in sheer size of visionary images and squint equally at small magical movements.

Admittedly the piece takes a while to get into, not because it is hard to watch, or tiresome. It is more understanding the way that Thiérrée moves around the space, the silent dialogue and clowning elements, it is essentially understanding the language he is using. With Raoul you have to drop all sense of intelligence, and allow yourself to be immersed inside a world of true imagination.

Thiérrée performs with strength and comic ability, but equally there is a thorough form of training and skill that he has with his body. Watching him send ripples around his body is quite fascinating, if a little odd to conceive.

Thiérrée creates a strange, mysterious world to which the spectator has to loose all senses and thought and enjoy a spectacle of epic proportions.

Breath taking stage design
Breath taking stage design

There are moments within Raoul where I was left wondering “How are they doing that?”, especially with the stage design, which is at times breathtaking.

The house made from large piping during the course of the 75 minute performance slowly gets dismantled in explosive creative ways. Towards the start of the piece the front of this structure just falls apart, the large piping narrowly missing those seating in the front row (many a gasp of horror during this moment).

There is another breath taking moment where the back wall of piping seems to explode outwards as it magically gets lifted upwards away from the stage looking like a star that has descended to earth.

The music equally plays a huge part within this performance, it shapes emotions and atmospheres, it booms across the Barbican Theatre, and tinkles in all corners. It is clear that Thiérrée’s piece isn’t just about himself, it is a much larger version of a world he is creating. The sounds that echo through the theatre combined with the stage trickery and imagination makes your head pound with chaotic excitement.

The show even features a large elephant, a strange fish that swims across the stage and a large puppet bird. The various materials and devices used is endless, and brilliantly done.

James Thiérrée
James Thiérrée

A one-man show by James Thiérrée is not exactly what I expected, that is for sure. Thiérrée is talented, and rightly so, given his upbringing around circuses and learning the tricks of the trade from his family. He is a spectacle himself, who manages to so easily switch between the clowning elements to the sheer physical ability of his body. He appears to have no limits. Throwing himself across the stage, onto piping, and even at one point flies across the stage and out into the audience.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed myself in this performance, it did take me a while to get actively engaged in this. It’s bizarre. Certainly is not for everyone. Yet equally it is challenging and works wonders for the eyes. But Thiérrée still has a way to go before I will gladly give him a standing ovation such as the one that occurred on the night I saw Raoul, but that is a pet hate of mine.

Raoul is spectacular, but how far does it go to keep us engaged?

Raoul is on at the Barbican Centre until the 24th October. See their website for more details.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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