Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate’s Life for Me
It’s already over 130 years ago that Robert Louis Stevenson – under the pseudonym of Captain George North – published the first chapter of Treasure Island. Serialised in a youth magazine, the story introduced many strange buccaneers and each adventure ended with an extraordinary cliffhanger, to keep the young audience hooked until the next week.
Over the next decades, many a generation grew up with the story and it has informed almost all of the notions we currently hold about piracy. It’s for Stevenson that we imagine pirate captains to have a talking parrot on their shoulder, while leaning on their wooden leg and taking a sip of rum straight from the bottle. And even popular franchises like the Pirates of the Caribbean films take concepts like the ‘black spot’, the Spanish ‘pieces of eight’ and various naval songs directly from Stevenson’s book. (Not to mention Facebook offering a language setting called ‘Pirate English’ that turns your entire homepage into an episode of Treasure Island).
With a book that lies close to the hearts of so many people, it is a challenge to create a worthy adaptation. The National Theatre dared to attempt it this season, with playwright Bryony Lavery on the helm, and the show definitely lives up to the expectations. It is an energetic performance, funny and exciting, with a deeper coming-of-age theme and important moral questions. Though the book has always been described as one for children, the play is a true family piece, suitable for audiences of any age.
A real classic, one could say, but Lavery has made some important changes to update the story to fit with modern ideas. Whereas Stevenson’s novel only contains one female character, Lavery’s cast is perfectly balanced. Moreover, main character Jim Hawkins has been interpreted as being a girl – called Jim. The pirate crew also includes a gay seaman, dressed in a pink satin pirate costume, and a Latin-American fellow who refuses to speak anything but Spanish.
The scenery on stage is no less impressive than the story. The entire ceiling is covered in small light bulbs, which together shape a starry sky above the ocean. It has been designed with such immense care that all zodiac signs are visible during a scene with dialogue on navigation. The ship itself is merely a suggestion though; part of its skeleton surrounds the stage and mere ropes and light form the sails.
The epic style of the acting and the ingenious production design make Treasure Island a real adventure. It keeps a perfect balance between being true to its original, but at the same time adapting enough to satisfy modern audiences.
And speaking about modern needs, the National Theatre runs high-quality live screenings of the show for audiences who don’t want to visit the Southbank venue. With the wide array of camera angles available, you might actually get a better view in the partaking cinemas than you would in the theatre. You get close-ups and details left and right, it makes you feel part of the stage. As for the National Theatre, it’s clearly growing it’s audience by making art accessible for everyone in the UK and abroad; a fantastic initiative.
— Treasure Island is still in the National Theatre until 8 April 2015 and has another live screening coming up soon.