The meaning of treasure. And cheese.



KITCHEN mysteries: Jim Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) gets close and curious with Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill). Photograph courtesy

PATSY FERRAN IS a Spanish-born actor, who at the time of the stage debut of the National Theatre’s Treasure Island was in her early 20s. The enormity of her presence, the wit and poetry of the manner in which she articulates and inhabits the soul of Jim Hawkins, the androgynous young narrator of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 classic is simply magnetic. Her performance contains this rollicking monster of a play and keeps it trimmed to a shape that even your ten-year-old will recognise.

Treasure Island is the work that engendered most of the pirate-related clichés in contemporary parlance, from ‘pieces of eight’ and ‘shiver me timbers’ to sixteen men dancing on a dead man’s chest, with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, and everything associated with a sinister one-legged chap with a parrot on his shoulder. Under the deft directorial hand of Polly Findlay, however, there are no cheap or cheesy laughs in this epic production. But don’t get me wrong, there are laughs aplenty from all quarters and each of the characters is developed with all his (or her) idiosyncrasies completely intact, including Grey (Tim Samuels) the guy no one notices or remembers, Joan the Goat (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and of course Captain Flint (Ben Thompson), the parrot.

And it’s a complicated ask: with Stevenson’s literature, like that of JM Barrie, Jonathan Swift or Herman Melville, the story is the thing that has swept the decks of narrative excitement for years, but when you get down with your child to attempt to read The Water Babies, Gulliver’s Travels or Moby Dick, you realise that the language itself, beautiful and rich though it may be, is not that accessible to a modern youngster.

This is the magic of Findlay and Bryony Lavery who adapted the text for stage. It’s almost completely accessible, and the language by and large hasn’t been softened into colloquialisms. But magic is generously poured on much of this production, including the lighting of the work which gloriously changes a London stage into the hull of a 19th century wooden schooner, or the maze-like mystery of an island with hidden promises. To say nothing of the galaxy of stars out there in the night sky.

And then there is the set. With nooks and crannies and stars and tunnels it’s a gargantuan project that gets wows from the audience as it twists and turns and reveals vistas of sea-related illusions. Indeed, the choreography blending cast and set in this high seas adventure is completely bewildering and invigorating.

Ultimately, Treasure Island is a moral tale and you come away with sweet caveats about the meaning of quickly acquired wealth and the value of cheese. One of the casualties in this work is that the maverick crew that puts the notion ‘motley’ in the shade, loses some of its impact. Of course this is a pragmatic reality; in a two hour adaptation, you cannot possibly hone in on all your favourite madcaps. In a way, this compromises some of the small narratives in this big tale of acquisition and colonial adventure.

Will it rouse your pre-teen to choreograph his or her own adventures armed with your furniture, a hand-drawn map, a wooden sword and a whole bunch of pirately jargon? Maybe.

  • Treasure Island is written by Robert Louis Stevenson and adapted for stage by Bryony Lavery, for the National Theatre in 2014. Directed by Polly Findlay, it is performed by Raj Bajaj, Oliver Birch, Daniel Coonan, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Arthur Darvill, Angela de Castro, Paul Dodds, Heather Dutton, Patsy Ferran, Nick Fletcher, Gillian Hanna, Joshua James, Lena Kaur, Aidan Kelly, David Langham, Jonathan Livingstone, Helena Lymbery, Alexandra Maher, Alastair Parker, Tim Samuels, David Sterne, Ben Thompson and Roger Wilson. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live at Home, it features creative input by Lizzie Clachan (production design), Bret Yount (fight direction), Bruno Poet (lighting), Aideen Malone (lighting), Ben Thompson (puppetry), Dan Jones (music and sound), John Tams (songs), Chris Fisher (illusions), Clive Mendus (comedy consultant) and Jack Murphy (movement). It broadcasts until April 22 via the National Theatre’s youtube channel.

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