It is to my shame that I’ve only ever come across Robert Louis Stevenson’s epic pirate tale through the lens of Disney’s sci-fi version, Treasure Planet – where Long John Silver was a cyborg and Ben Gunn an excitable robot. In 2002, it was the magic of animation which brought the story to life; in 2014’s Treasure Island, it’s the magic of theatre.
Curiously, Lizzie Clachlan’s design sees the traditional revolve of Olivier come second to a towering, great ship set, astonishingly layered and detailed in its many rooms, subtle details and overall extravagance. The same can be said for lighting designer Bruno Poet, who excels in creating the night sky which adorns the top of the stage, and Ben Thompson, who for the avoidance of spoilers or ruining the magic, is best described as the ‘handler’ of Silver’s parrot.
In an adaptation by Bryony Lavery, Jim Hawkins is the girl (played by Patsy Ferran of Summer and Smoke) who finds herself caught up in a sea-faring adventure to Treasure Island in search of gold, upon which she meets deceptive pirate Long John Silver (Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill). Jim’s gender-swapping is highlighted through several early interactions, with a few pirates entering the inn where she works asking if she’s a boy or ‘lass’, but it perhaps goes unnoticed by some that it’s Silver who is the first new character to be learn of Jim’s gender – a more unconscious sign of trust in what begins an unusual camaraderie.
There is an intriguing, complementary dynamic in Darvill and Ferran’s respective portrayals. The former’s Silver, in his swagger and sluggish sword fighting technique, appears unenthused and at times disinterested, rapidly switching from dialogue about his having one leg to food. When he then becomes serious about the subject of treasure, there’s a kind of unpredictability which only adds to his untrustworthiness.
Meanwhile, in contrast to the slower tempo of Silver’s character, Ferran’s Hawkins is far more animated throughout. As the protagonist telling the narrative, it carries a Shakespearean delivery, with the actress’ gestures being of particular interest when it comes to her performance. The constant pinching of fingers suggesting her need to handle what is a fast-moving and incredible set of circumstances, now that her nightmares become reality. In a description of Silver saving her from a storm, it falls down to Ferran’s intonation and body language to create a sense of atmosphere (in addition to Poet’s dark lighting), which results in one which is striking for its minimalistic storytelling. We soon realise that her physical movements are useful, too, as a way to determine latitude and wind direction on board the ship.
In a swashbuckling story spanning several scene changes and tightly choreographed fight sequences, Polly Findlay keeps things short and speedy with her direction and it is supported by performances from Ferran and Joshua James, who plays erratic cabin boy Ben Gunn complete with two quickfire internal monologues. However, while these aspects do drive the play forward, it sometimes struggles with rushed through humour which is not given time to settle or poorly framed through needless exposition from Hawkins which strays into telling, and not showing. Then again, Treasure Island was never really a comedy, it’s more an adventure story, the thrilling pursuit of which is perfectly captured in this production.
Treasure Island played at the Olivier Theatre in 2014. It is available to watch online for free, with captions, via the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 23 April at 7pm (GMT).
Production Images: Johan Persson.