Melly Still On … Rebuilding Pratchett's Nation
The Olivier is a space Still knows well, having also directed The Revenger's Tragedy and Coram Boy there, the latter of which enjoyed two sell-out seasons and also transferred to Broadway. Her other directing credits include Watership Down and Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith, and Alice in Wonderland at the Bristol Old Vic.
Terry Pratchett is known for his creation of alternative universes, and Nation is no different. It takes place on a South Pacific Island in the 19th Century, roughly around the time of the Krakatoa volcano in that region, and opens with a big tsunami which wipes out all the islands leaving very few survivors.
There's one central island called The Nation, which most of the surrounding islands look to as the one the gods look after because it has three stones on it which they call the 'God Anchors'. After the tsunami, the stragglers seek out this island because they think they will be saved. But when they get there, they only find two young survivors - a 13 year-old native boy and a 13 year-old aristocratic girl. The cultures of these two collide enormously, so they have to overcome their inevitable prejudices and set about rebuilding the nation based on new values, whilst dealing wih the ever-present threat of a band of flesh-eating raiders.
Gary Carr, who plays Mau
Myself and Mark (Ravenhill) started working at roughly the same time. I began workshops exploring the narrative and ways of solving various moments, exploring the characters with the actors and so on. Mark would pop in and out, and come up with various scenes which we would work on. We worked closely but separately, coming together regularly to compare notes. We had to make some tough decisions together, such as which characters to cut and which scenes to reinvent, so that it all hung together as a cohesive narrative. The architecture was his job, while I was just trying to make it all vivid.
Novel adaptations are always quite difficult because there’s so much information that just sits in your head. Mark's quite brilliant at plunging straight into strong dramatic action and once you're in there it never lets up; it has an incredible pace to it. We had to lose certain characters but by the same token we also tried to expand certain others, particularly the nihilistic leader of the raiders, Cox, whose history we had to tell without relying too much on back-story, as the novel can.
Terry (Pratchett) was very busy elsewhere during rehearsals, but he came in for a workshop and was an absolute fountain of knowledge. It was great for us and the actors to ask him all our burning questions, and he talked to us for three hours. He was very generous, and he just sort of handed it over to us in a way you have to hand a novel over to the imagination of a reader. Interestingly, he told us he actually started writing it a year before the Asian tsunami, and put it aside for a few years after it happened because he felt it was inappropriate. It was an extraordinary and obviously very sad coincidence for him that it occurred as he was working on this story.
I've done quite a few adaptations now, and it always takes some time to make the shift between reading the source material and working out how it's going to work on the stage. In this case, I just tried to literally imagine how it would work on the Olivier stage, how to create a landscape in which these characters could really breathe and live in.
The Olivier is a space I absolutely love – I'm not at all frightened of it. When I was first asked to do Coram Boy, everyone said “oh my god the Olivier”, and spoke about it like it was some kind of gladiatorial arena, and I would be its next victim to be spat out. But I think naivety was quite beneficial, because I wasn't remotely intimidated by it. The one bit that did frighten me was the drum, so I actually set out to use it this time. In the end the scene I created for it was cut, but it did give me a chance to explore it and I'm still using the revolve.
A lot of people have asked about a film adaptation, and obviously I'd love to do it if it did happen. But Terry's very respectful of his fans and I don't know if he would be particularly keen on the idea. Generally speaking though, film is an area I'd love to explore next, though whether it will happen remains to be seen. It must be in the stratosphere somewhere I suppose, but maybe not in this lifetime, as Terry might say, maybe in another universe.
- Melly Still was speaking to Theo Bosanquet
Nation is currently in previews, and opens next week (24 November 2009). It continues in rep in the NT Olivier until 28 March 2010.