I remember reading Treasure Island when I was younger, shivering in excitement as Long John Silver swept the crew of the
Hispaniola into his murky plans. I remember Captain Flint
(Silver’s parrot), Jim Hawkins the cabin-boy, the blind man tap-tapping his
cane in the darkness, the dreaded black spot, finding the wild man Ben Gunn on
the island… But strangely enough, I don’t really remember the story at all.
More recently, I read Andrew Motion’s Silver,
the 'return to Treasure Island', but that felt more like seeing something
familiar refracted through an endless mirror and trying to piece it all back
together. But here, in this production by London’s
National Theatre, Treasure Island
springs into full-blooded thrilling life, and is much darker and far more
mercurial than I ever remember it.
Appropriately enough, considering the one-hundred-and-thirty odd year interval between this production and the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original book, to encounter the story now feels like coming home, coming back to the beginning of something. And there is something to be thankful for in that. Now, when every fictional pirate seems to be a clone of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, it is refreshing to see a pirate which isn’t all handwaving, eye-rolling and cowardice personified.
At the National Theatre, the Olivier theatre’s size is this production’s greatest asset. Unfolding across a circular stage, with a large curved backdrop – depicting, at various times, the night sky, a port-town, a treasure map, the open sea – Lizzie Clachan’s design feels very much like a storybook come to life, with the sets rising and falling like a sea-tossed ship from the belly of the stage. Around the stage’s edge at curved rib-like fingers of wood, the skeleton of a ship or some great leviathan creature. Alone in the darkness, young Jim Hawkins addresses the audience, begins to tell us a tale, and the inn rises out of stage, as from our imaginations, and suddenly we’re in the story, amongst it all. Similarly, the ship also rises out of the floor, a two-tiered dolls-house-esque masterpiece of stage-machinery, while above and beside it, rope ladders, rigging, a mast and sail, the capstan and wheel, all stand. And in the final act, the drum-stage itself rises, a full twelve or fourteen feet in the air, to reveal a hidden series of tunnels and passageways carved beneath the island itself. It’s a magical production in many respects, richly textured and incredibly detailed, but also one which is not scared of the darkness at the heart of Stevenson’s tale, a very tangible darkness which sits in the heart of every person.
Because, as Andrew Motion writes,
Island – as a story, as a place – is very much a metaphor, a state
of mind, as it is a physical place. While Silver himself is a surrogate
father-figure for Jim, we never see him as sincere, nor perhaps should we; he
exists in a very mercurial place in the story, doing exactly what the situation
requires and never anything more, always manipulating the situation for the
greatest benefit to himself and his plan. In Stevenson’s Island, things just happen
– “everything has a feeling of rush and dash and hurtle, [we] never [have] time
to think about the consequences of any event. Things just happen, dreadful
things – natural deaths, unnatural deaths – and then another thing happens.
It’s a weirdly existential universe.”
In Bryony Lavery’s adaptation, and Polly Findlay’s direction, the spirit of Stevenson’s book crackles and bristles, swaggering around the stage with a robust energy which perfectly suits the production and story. Apart from Silver and Jim, the pirates and townfolk are all rather flat in terms of character development, but they each have their own characteristics and beats, and still feel like individuals in the story, but still very much part of a story. In Lavery’s adaptation, Jim is Jemima, a young girl, played with relish by Patsy Ferran. Lamenting the presence of women in Stevenson’s story, Lavery loses nothing of Stevenson’s story, but perhaps enhances it, asking ‘why can’t girls have the same adventures boys do?’ and Jim’s relationship with Silver takes on a new, darker edge because of it. (In doing so,
and Lavery, as much as Ferran and anyone else, are simply proving that “bravery
and daring are not a male prerogative,” as Michael
Billington writes.) Silver, played by Arthur Darvill, is a long-haired
rogue whose coat seems to be made from an old threadbare carpet. He’s a
devilish man, a bit like Fagin in Oliver
Twist, keeping up the appearance of one thing while really planning
something else entirely. The danger of Darvill’s Silver lies in his charm, his
ability to exactly what he needs to be at any moment. Findlay
As I seem to say a lot with the National Theatre Live program, it’s hard not be a bit jealous of the resources and stage-craft of these companies. Despite the fact that there is a fully mechanised stage, an animatronic parrot, a full-blooded score, what you have underneath all the bells and whistles is still a rollicking good story – a rollicking good production – which catches you up in its fervour and excitement and takes you along on its thrilling ride. If you wanted to, you could probably say the whole thing happens in Jim’s head, that it’s all a dream in a way, but that would be denying Findlay’s production (and Stevenson’s story) the acclaim it rightly deserves, it would be denying the story the power it has to truly scare and excite us, adults as much as children.
At the end – after Jim returns home to her grandmother at the inn; after the parrot’s voice has rasped once more through the theatre with its piercing cry of ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’; after the curtain call – we linger for a moment on the boat suspended in mid air above the stage, a ghostly white boat, surrounded by a star-drenched backdrop, the rib-like bones of the ship’s hull standing tall around the edges of the space. There’s a beautiful blue light, shot through with amber and darker tones, and you can almost smell the salty sea, hear the waves crashing against the shore, hear the timber creak, feel the ship rise and fall beneath your feet, and it lingers for a moment, like a dream half-remembered, like an adventure, waiting. Waiting for the next person to come along and encounter it. To follow the coordinates and rhyme to find the location of the treasure island