"Don't read the Terry Pratchett novel," I was urgently advised. "Just go and experience this as a piece of theatre." Which I duly did but I can only report that I found the National's latest attempt to extend the frontiers of children's theatre a bewildering mythical melange: whether the fault lies with Pratchett's book, Mark Ravenhill's adaptation or even Melly Still's restlessly inventive production I'm not sure.
The story starts with an angry boy on a beach: he's Mau, a south Pacific islander and victim of a tsunami that seems to have all but annihilated the local population. He is soon joined, however, by Daphne, a pert Victorian miss who, along with a subversive parrot, has survived a shipwreck while en route to a reunion with her father. What follows is a mix of coming-of-age ritual and piece of nation-building in which Mau and Daphne seek to construct a new world.
Mau, elected chief by the surviving islanders, grows to manhood and learns bravery, courage and fearlessness. Daphne, meanwhile, achieves a post-colonial maturity through delivering a baby, milking a pig and even rescuing Mau from death. But, inevitably, their idyll is interrupted by the arrival of the remnants of Victorian civilisation.
What does it all signify? You could see it as a Tempest-like story of cultural collision in which Mau is forced to acknowledge his nation's lost historic glories. Or it could be a modern Coral Island about a displaced adolescent's adjustment to the world of nature. It might also be about the human urge to overcome death embodied, on the island, by Locaha and, in the Victorian world, by a Russian flu pandemic.
But what you get on stage is a loose congregation of myths that boils down to a series of set-pieces: Mau confronting a shark, Daphne making a Dantesque journey into the underworld and both of them learning to kill. What the story lacks is the spellbinding clarity you find in the best children's fiction.
It is all staged with a hectic panache. Sill 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.
Puppets, created by Yvonne Stone, represent a giant sow, bendy-limbed elders, even a growing baby. Gary Carr and Emily Taaffe as Mau and Daphne disport themselves with great dignity and there is a nice study of a talking, walking parrot from Jason Thorpe.
Although it makes a spectacular island fling, it rarely achieves narrative coherence. Perhaps I should have read the book, after all.
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Guardian: Nation | Theatre review
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