By Karla Williams
Tuesday, December 1, 2009.
The initial impression when Nation begins isn’t a good one. We are greeted by a young black boy (Mau played by Garry Carr) wearing nothing more than a Loin cloth and standing on what looks like a deserted island. A few scenes later, we meet Daphne (Emily Taaffe) an upper class, English school girl on her way to see her father until the ship she is travelling on is hit by a tsunami. Low and behold, Daphne ends up on Mau’s island and it appears that we’re to be treated to yet another episode of white British colonialist taming the black African savages.
However, Nation is much more than that, and the Terry Pratchett novel adapted by Mark Ravenhill examines issues of belief, history and revenge across cultures.
The island Mau inhabits has also been hit by the tsunami, killing the entirely population including his own family. Daphne and her pet parrot Milton (played brilliantly by Jason Thorpe) are not the only survivor of the shipwreck and her butler Cox, along with seamen Foxlip and Polegrave, also make it to the island.
While Daphne and Mau endeavour to work together to create a place where they and the other survivors from various islands can live, Cox has other ideas and seeks revenge for the death of his son to the Russian Influenza - a tragedy he feels should have befit Daphne in his place.
The first major difference between Nation and a non-gender specific re-telling of the story of original Pocahontas (not the Disney fairytale) is that the islanders are played by a cast of various races with only the key figures being played by black actors. Whether this is stated in the original novel or down to the direction of Merry Still is unclear, but it creates a story about contradictory cultures that isn’t specific to race. Also Daphne eventually becomes integrated into Mau’s way of life rather than the other way round, and she’s converted to the island religion even when he is becoming an unbeliever.
The islanders worship the god Emo, to whom they attribute everything; from a child who will die because his mother is unable to feed him to the tsunami itself. And while Daphne does introduce science and some of her own Christian beliefs, these are eventually replaced by ‘praises to Emo’. Further to this, the plot of the play reinforces the island traditions above other beliefs, in particular when Daphne has to journey into the world of Locaha - the island equivalent to Satan- to rescues Mau from death.
While the word ‘savage’ is directed towards Mau and his people from time to time, the plays clearly depicts that the real savage is Daphne’s butler Cox. After joining forces with the blood thirsty raiders he seeks to kill both Daphne and Mau in a bid to finally right the wrong of his young son’s untimely death. It is these details that turn the play into a drama about cross-cultural similarity and difference, and not another volume in the Great British catalogue of global colonisation.
The excellent young cast are all impressive in their roles; in particular Jason Thorpe as Milton the Parrot is truly a comic relief; and Gary Carr and Emily Taaffe as the mixed race lovers Mau and Daphne are the most remarkable.
The first half of a play can often be an accurate indicator as to the direction of the remaining plot, however, Nation doesn’t fit this pattern and the charming, well produced drama ends on a higher note than it started.
Nation by Terry Pratchett
Adapted by Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Merry Still
Nation is continuing in the Olivier Repertoire, London, until 28 March 2010.
For more information: 020 7452 3000.
Cast includes: David Ajala, Gary Carr, Emily Taaffe and Craig Stein.
Karla Williams is a London-based journalist and writer.