• Amy Toledano

Treasure Island (2015) at The National Theatre: At Home

Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of National Theatre

What Is It?

Bryony Lavery’s 2015 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 adventure novel, directed by Polly Findlay at the National’s Olivier Theatre.

What Is It About?

A coming-of-age story of money, mutiny, and murder. Buccaneers, betrayal and buried gold. Mysterious maps leading to remote tropical islands. The cheekiest parrot since Iago from Aladdin. And, say it with me: pirates!

How Did It Make Me Feel?

Without a doubt, the true star of the show is designer Lizzie Clachan’s gorgeous, intricate set. It transforms and transports us to the world of the play at every step of the unfolding adventure, with plenty of surprises. It’s always organic: we watch the rigging and the sails go up, building into the Hispaniola as we watch the crew getting the vessel ready and seaworthy; we follow the mutineers down dark tunnels in search of treasure.

All this is accompanied by lighting design that makes us feel, at times as though we are surrounded by the open sea, or buffeted by storms. And of course, always, the stars. The sea shanties and music that make up the score add to the strong sense of atmosphere.

Robert Louis Stevenson originally called Treasure Island a ‘story for boys’—the Yorkie Bar approach. It’s great to see it in the hands of a female-led creative team, with Patsy Ferran strong in the leading role of Jim Hawkins. Ferran in the role adds intergenerational dimensions to this iconic character; throughout the play she asserts herself as a sea-farer and as a provider for her Grandma, whom she idolises.

I’m not sure how I feel about the way the play addresses her gender. (I use she/her pronouns as that is what the play uses.) “Be you boy or be you girl?” she is asked at the very beginning. “That be my business.” That’s cool: a gender non-conforming Jim Hawkins is an interesting step for such a major story, in such a major venue. It might even be a throwback to the real stories of LGBTQ people who were active in the Golden Age of piracy, that have mostly been erased. Taking this approach to Jim Hawkins also makes inclusive narrative sense, with the character essentially meant to be a stand-in for any child watching to project themselves into the adventure. However, the script seems to be unsure how to refer to her (and Dr. Livesy for that matter), fluctuating between ambiguity and true gender blind conventions, only to then double-down and make sure that characters address her as ‘girl’ every other line. Grandma using her full name in the end—‘Jemima’, for this adaptation—feels like an unnecessary non-reveal. Perhaps they would have done otherwise in 2020. As it stands, it feels like they were trying to do more than your typical ‘girl-dresses-as-boy-for-safety’ trope, only to shy away at the last minute.

Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is a charismatic, strong presence from his very first stylish entrance. That he doesn’t outright steal every scene he’s in is down to the strength of the ensemble. Nick Fletcher’s Squire Trelawney is comedy gold, and Joshua James’ Ben Gunn is hilarious and sympathetic—and somebody get Captain Flint the parrot an Olivier. “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” Iconic. Delightful.

There are some exceptional moments that stand out, including the scene where Long John Silver teaches Hawkins to navigate by the stars. The action clips along at a good pace, punctuated by some great fight choreography. The narration sometimes slides into telling over showing, dampening the stakes in certain moments. During the mutiny, for example. We never get to feel the danger and the uncertainty the original story and other adaptations place us in. That moment of worrying whether this is truly a kids’ story—whether the main characters will always be safe.

It all ends somewhat abruptly, and a little differently to the book, if that matters to you. I would have liked another few minutes with the characters. One is left asking questions. But isn’t wanting more a good sign?

Overall, it’s a fun play boasting high production values and brilliant artistry from a talented creative team. Get your pirate hat out. Be a kid. Find some treasure.

Anything Else?

The National Theatre’s Twitter feed is full of heart-warming stories and pictures that families have shared of themselves enjoying the livestream. Plenty of costumes, creativity, and memes, and it’s wonderful to see how many people are enjoying the same thing at the same time.

Arden x

Treasure Island will be streaming for free on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 23th April 2020.

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