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We headed deep into the bowels of the wonderful National Theatre (past a corridor with posters of people like Kenneth Branagh on the walls, and tiny, teasing name-tapes on the doors; we spotted one for Richard Griffiths – he gets a room to himself, other people were sharing) into a cavernous rehearsal room, dotted with actors, technical crew and stage hands.
Director Melly Still greeted us warmly, giving a quick synopsis of Terry Pratchett’s novel (read one here), which has been adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill. Mark was also watching the rehearsal with us, which was cool.
We then watched a few fantastic scenes where the lead character Mau confronts his enemies, and the new chieftain Cox, as well as his enemis’ god, Locaha. It was the final section of the play, where Mau’s extraordinary coming of age is finally realised.
From the short section we saw, with barefoot actors sporting few costumes, but lots of sportswear, we can tell you this looks like it’s going to be a really exciting piece of theatre. We were asked to imagine the 7ft effigy of Locaha, and excuse the actors shouting “bang!” rather than shooting pistols, but around these missing elements played a dynamic piece of very physical theatre with a real sense of tension, even in a short space of time. Despite it being just a rehearsal, we were gripped by Mau’s “swimming” on the arms of the ensemble, the struggle on the boat, and Mau’s final big decision…
The actors that stood out for us, even in just their rolled-up tracksuits and vests, were the super-good-looking Gary Carr as Mau, Paul Chahidi as Cox (looking nothing like his smiley picture this morning!) and Michael Mears’ creepily persuasive Locaha.
We were really interested in the foul-mouthed parrot, Milton, played by Jason Thorpe. At today’s rehearsal he was only wearing a kind of humped tail, and appeared briefly. But what we saw looked great. Melly says she sees Milton as one of the main sources of humour in the play, but also as a comic figure from the tradition of Lear’s Fool: one with a serious side to his jokes.
The rehearsal stage, domed with an interesting wooden crescent structure, serving as the sea, the beach, and possibly the whole world, revolved while actors drew spears and sang songs, evoking, Melly told us, the spirit of Polynesia. It was certainly an intense experience, being so close to the actors; we hope this intensity carries over into the Olivier after they’ve finished their six-week run of rehearsals and moved into the theatre proper.
There’s going to be lots of music in Nation too: the director promises “a colourful piece of musical theatre borrowing from the Polynesian aesthetic, without being tied to any particular reality.” A band consisting of a grand piano, two electric guitars, a classical harpist, and percussion (sometimes played by actors on stage) is being led by Adrian Sutton.
We don’t want to tell you too much and spoil any surprises. Nor, it seemed did director Melly. She was open enough about the relationship between Mark’s drafts, the novel, what’s possible for the actors and her visions for the play; she told us about the huge blocks of glass which will frame the back of the theatre, transforming the play’s aquatic moments with projected images of water; she revealed they’re still working on aspects of the staging…
However, asked whether Nation the play would open like the book does, with a tsunami, she simply said “Of course!” with a big smile, and waited.
The actors laughed and applauded her teasing: “How are we doing it?” she prompted. “You’ll have to come and see!”
With free tickets for 15-25 year olds, and ticket prices for everyone else starting at just £10, we recommend that you do.
Nation starts previews on 11 November: book tickets here.