Getting free plays streamed to us during lockdown is great. I've seen more theatre in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. I get to catch up with a lot of recent London theatre that I missed out on because I'm not in the U.K. This week, the National Theatre offered a free stream of their 2014 production of Treasure Island.
Treasure Island is the source text of every pirate story that came after it. There were history books and journalistic accounts that Robert Louis Stevenson drew on to write his adventure story for boys, but this is the story that everyone remembers. You can spot its influence on the Monkey Island games, the Black Sails TV series, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It has more TV, movie and animated adaptations than I can count. It's even been adapted for the stage in the UK as Christmas pantomimes.
A New Way to Look at Treasure Island
So what can a new theatrical production of the story have to offer? Polly Findley's production at the massive Oliver Theatre at the National in London makes a lot of bold choices. Bryony Lavery's heightened, stylized script features heightened, dialogue and changes the story where it counts. Jim Hawkins here is a girl and the production takes a gender-blind approach to casting. History is on its side: there were in fact women sailors and female pirates in the 1880s. Popular fiction at the time just gender-washed it to look like only men took to the seas. Several of the sailors and pirates in the play are now women and nobody bats an eyelash.
The script changes elements of the story to smooth over the clumsier parts of the plot and creates knowing, postmodern comedy out of the genre tropes the story invented. Many of the supporting characters were created for the story. Their comedy and menace take on an epic quality that's closer to Shakespeare than pantomime. It features the most menacing Blind Pew I've ever seen. Patsy Ferran, one of Britain's rising stars, plays Jim Hawkins' coming of age as a moral awakening as well. Arthur Darvill plays Long John Silver with a slippery amorality that seduces Jim. He offers her adventure, a new perspective, teaches her to read the stars in a magical scene where the starry sky that morphs in synch with Jim and Silver's doomed friendship.
What Makes This Version Special
On top of the brilliant cast, the real star of the play is the set, which morphs and changes like a body in a fever dream. It changes from an inn to the ship to the island itself, full of labyrinths and death traps. It turns the story in a stylish, stylized, abstract production that does something no film, TV or comics adaptation could ever do – it turned Treasure Island into a state of mind. That's what makes theatre unique from other mediums. We know it's all artificial, but we still see the magic.
You can stream Treasure Island until April 22nd.