Providing another well-timed reprieve from lockdown’s monotony, Bryony Lavery’s 2014 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s much-loved classic portrays adventure as a boundless concept through its redressing of gender conventions which pervade the archetypal boys’ story. In spite of this, the excitement and intricacy of narrative and plot still remain, ensuring an engaging watch for all ages.
Played convincingly by Patsy Ferran, Jim Hawkins - a “smart as paint girl” - leads us on the journey penned by Stevenson, rebelling against gender roles by stepping on the Hispaniola. Fiercely resentful of being told that “maps are for men, not girls,” Ferran’s Jim resists simple classification, demonstrating how wit and bravery are not just consigned to her male counterparts. Jim’s interaction with the revered Long John Silver, played by Arthur Darvill, illustrates the threat of insidious male charm to her buccaneering progress, a coming-of-age aspect which is deftly handled.
The dramatic fallout at the end of Act One, sword fights and all, breathes life into Lavery’s redress of conventional gender roles, placing a female presence at the centre of the plot’s turning point. Despite this, the essence of Stevenson’s novel is not forgotten; viewers can see the honour and resourcefulness of children emphasised alongside the selfishness and greed of the adult crew. This is increasingly apparent as Jim slowly grasps Silver’s mercurial nature, a man who can switch between his multiple personalities with alarming ease.
Looking beyond the key protagonists, there are also notable performances from Aidan Kelly as the haunted Bill Bones, Nick Fletcher’s pompous Squire, Alexandra Maher’s straight-edged, no-nonsense Dr Livesey, and, in particular, Joshua James’s cheese-obsessed, mentally wrecked, and at times Calibanesque, Ben Gunn.
Housing this re-imagination of Stevenson’s classic is Lizzie Clachan’s widely praised set. In Act One, the Hispaniola is met with rousing applause. The cast themselves winch up huge curving ribs to form the sides of the vessel before swinging rope ladders are assembled and an awesome fluttering sail descends. After Jim boards, the audience is given a doll's-house view of the stage, a cross section of the ship’s frenetic activity. When on land, the ribs of the Hispaniola turn into the sinister branches which populate Treasure Island, emphasising the scale of the adventure and risk the explorers on the marshy land below are taking.
The gravity and ingenuity of Clachan’s work is a testament to the production’s ambitious casting, a fitting reflection of modern theatre and the escapism it allows. These factors combine in Act Two when Jim steers the ship to safety with the same hopeful song which opens the action: “Bright morning star arising… Day is a-breaking in my soul.” A universal and imaginative tribute to adventure and honour, this take on Treasure Island suitably redresses gender conventions without discarding the excitement and hope which runs through the original story. A refreshing break from Groundhog Day.
Treasure Island is available to watch for free here on the National Theatre’s Youtube channel until April 23rd.
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