Treasure Island at the National Theatre Online
The National Theatre presents an astonishing take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel, Treasure Island. Bryony Lavery’s adaptation successfully transports all of us, no matter what age, to a place of adolescent innocence – even in this time of real uncertainty. Available to watch from the comfort of our homes, this sharply written interpretation is vibrant and subtly pushes the boundaries of the narrative. In this reimagining, the audience is introduced to Jim Hawkins, played dazzlingly by Patsy Ferran, who is in fact a Jemima, lifting the ambiguity off of the central character in Stevenson’s novel. But what matters in this production is genderless: we, the audience, must accompany Jim on her journey across the seas, encountering betrayal and extreme loyalty, as she is faced with the harsh reality of what it’s like to be grown up.
Treasure Island is a tale of money, mutiny and murder equipped with lively pirates, maps, clues and of course, a talkative parrot. The show opens at the West Coast inn owned by Hawkins’ grandmother, and here they house a new lodger: menacing sailor Billy Bones, equipped with a huge sea-chest keeping the treasure map safe. He is searching for a one-legged pirate and it’s not long before Hawkins meets the infamous man himself, Captain Long-John Silver, played charismatically by Arthur Darvill.
Ferran plays Jim as tomboy-like, courageous and cheeky all in one. Acutely directed by Polly Findlay, Ferran has an incredible physical talent, moving about the stage in a childlike way that makes her performance all the more captivating. As Ferran and Darvill embark on their expedition to find the treasure, they look to the starry night sky for guidance, and this becomes a theme throughout. Findlay creates a lovely moment of stillness amongst the anticipation of their voyage, in which the leading pair gaze up to the stars together, the ceiling transformed into a bright planetarium. This charming moment finds the majority of the audience doing the same, caught deeply inside their own imaginations, attempting to read the sky.
Lizzie Clachan’s set design is a spectacle of its own, perfectly matching the transformative state created by the narrative and raising it up another notch. Clachan creates a mystical place, showing the real and fantastical worlds colliding, with a brilliant mix of light and dark. The set is beautifully made to create the feeling of immersion; the cast move within the wide ribcage of the ship, with tall, splinter-like pillars tracing the outer platform, up to which sails and other onboard equipment can be winched. The set is further adapted as the play progresses, showcasing immense mechanical finesse, as the stage becomes a vast space of underground caves. This, in turn, creates the perfect location for the superb Ben Gunn to appear, played by Joshua James, who is soaked in the dirty undergrowth as if a living and breathing part of the cave itself.
This adaptation provides young audiences with a role model who has good traits but who is also achievable and realistic. Other interpretations should look to this one for an example of how to delicately position a new telling of a character without pushing political or gender-specific politics towards their audiences. Findlay holds our hand through this adventurous piece and invites a conversation, rather than making a statement.
Photo: Johan Persson