Tuesday, 17 November 2009

"Because you are young and full of questions, and that is the best thing of all."

I read my first Terry Pratchett novel when I was 7. It was Wyrd Sisters and it was a little beyond me at the time, but I enjoyed it and understood enough to know that it was a parody of Macbeth. My next encounter with Discworld was aged about 10, when Mum bought me The Colour of Magic as an audiobook. From then on, I was hooked.

In recent years, I've been disappointed with his later offerings in the Discworld 'verse. Going Postal and Making Money seem to me to be particularly limp additions to the canon. I wasn't even particularly enamoured of The Truth. Moist von Lipwig comes across like a recycled version of William de Worde and both of them just seem to be there to annoy Vimes who is a great character but getting overused. He was even dragged into that hellhole of a novel, Monstrous Regiment, to try to salvage that disaster (it didn't work).

Of the more recent Discworld novels, I rate Night Watch and Carpe Juggulum. I also liked The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men. Since the latest of those, TP has written another five Discworld-based books, none of which I've been especially grabbed by. The Wintersmith in particular, I found as dull as ditchwater. Time was, that when a new Discworld appeared in the shops, I'd buy it instantly and wouldn't rest until I'd devoured every page. I've asked for Unseen Academicals for Christmas but am expecting to be underwhelmed.

So I was pleasantly surprised last Christmas when a present of Nation from a friend was one of the most enjoyable books I had read for a long time. When I noticed that the National Theatre was staging an adaptation, I was determined to go. Last Saturday, I went with my sister and three others to see the stage version penned by Mark Ravenhill and put on at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre complex on the South Bank. Before I disappear up my own superlative, I would just say that anyone living in London and able to see this production should do so.

The basic premise of the book (and the play) is an English girl shipwrecked on a south Pacific island during the heyday of the Empire finds that the only other person on the island is a teenage boy, the sole survivor from his tribe following a devastating tsunami that also caused the shipwreck. Despite having nothing in common, they band together and attempt to form a new society, which grows as survivors from other surrounding islands make their way to the larger one, which was previously The Nation. There were some alternations to the plot as I remember it, mostly to do with amping up the backstory of the main villain to make him more sympathetic, rather than just a dangerous psychopath. All in all, they cram in a lot of what happens and nothing jarred too much with my recollections of the book.

I've struggled to find other reviews of it, and most of the ones I have found have been negative. However, they have picked on things that I hadn't really thought of (though I did think at the time 'grass skirts are incredibly cliched as a depiction of what a "native" would wear'), but if you want a counter-balance to my over-the-top fangirl squeeing, look here.

I loved this performance. I thought the acting by Gary Carr as Mau, the island boy, Emily Taaffe as Daphne and Jason Thorpe as ship's parrot Milton was particularly well done. The supporting cast were also good. But the main reason I loved this production was for the look of the thing. The Olivier Theatre is a very versatile performance space and I'd seen impressive productions there before, but not one with three giant fishtanks acting as backcloths. The effects used when people dive into the sea or are attacked by sharks were really visceral and convincing and added great depth (hur hur) to the proceedings. Having someone "swim" among waving blue sheets is somewhat oldschool. Having them tumble gracefully through the air suspended behind a massive tank of water really raises the level of the world you're creating.

Another nice touch was the personification of death as one of the island gods, Locaha. It changed depending on which character death was speaking to and swapped between various actors. It was a good reinforcement of one of the story's main themes, the fact that one day, we will all die.

As for the adaptation itself, the thing I liked the most was the use of Milton, the parrot, as a device for recalling the comments of characters and regurgitating them at embarrassing or particularly telling moments. Almost everything he said, apart from the memorable "Is a frog's arse watertight?" was a repetition of something said by someone else. It helped signpost the story for people who hadn't read the book and helped you keep track of all the characters, and there are certainly a lot of them.

For me, this production had everything. It was funny, intellectual and engaging and ran the gamut of spectacle from the gore of shark attacks and on-stage cannibalism, funerals with zombie overtones to awkward romance and poking fun at English pomp and customs. There is also plenty of God-bashing for the atheists among you and while this point was a bit laboured at times, Pratchett and Ravenhill relent enough to allow some room for doubt on the issue so you don't feel too preached at.

I found the end of the book incredibly sad but, at the same time, right for what it was trying to say. Seeing it actually acted out on stage, I nearly cried. (NB. This should not be used as a barometer of how moving it actually is, I cried at The Lion King, what can I say? I'm a wuss.) The play captured this moment faithfully and I left the theatre buzzing out of enjoyment, as did my companions.

So yeah. Go see :D


TheTelf said...

I haven't read your whole post, in case of spoilers (since I haven't read Nation yet), but I'd be interested to know what you found so hellish about Monstrous Regiment - I found it to be less coherent than Pratchett's usual fare, but not unenjoyable. None of the non-Vimes-centric books are brilliant, but I don't think I'd call them disasters.

Also, Night Watch = best book ever.

Hanspan said...

There aren't any spoilers, I checked :)

When you say non-Vimes-centric books, do you mean the more recent ones or across the series as a whole? Because I certainly think earlier books about the witches, wizards and Death more than hold their own against the Watch series.

I loved Night Watch overall, but felt the scenario at the beginning to get Vimes back in time was somewhat contrived.

Monstrous Regiment... just wasn't funny. And it was boring. And overly long. And oh my god, yet another of them is a woman in disguise! It just degenerated into silliness. I can't remember much about the plot but was so actively bored by it that I don't really want to go back an re-read it. I enjoyed it even less than the Moist von Lipwig ones. And I struggled to finish both it and them.

Anonymous said...

You are not a wuss. The Lion King is brutal.