The National Theatre's latest production is beamed live from London's Southbank to the Queen's Film Theatre
In the Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast the audience is watching actors in the National Theatre in London put on the first matinee performance of Terry Pratchett's Nation. Part of the NT Live season, the play is broadcast in high definition live from London's Southbank. The QFT is currently the only cinema in Northern Ireland set up to receive the broadcast and this is their first show. The theatre isn't packed, but it's a good turn out for a Saturday afternoon.
Director Melly Still describes Nation as a play about 'how to be'. Daphne and Mau are two characters who seemed unlikely to ever meet. Mau, played by Gary Carr, is an islander caught between his boy-soul and his man-soul. Daphne, played by Dublin actor Emily Taafe, is a well brought up Wiltshire girl from a good family on her way to see her father in Port wotsit. A tsunami destroys both their worlds, destroying everything Mau knows and shipwrecking Daphne far from home.
Helped and hindered by other survivors they don't only have to survive, they have to decide how their Nation will live. It's a decision that Cox, Daphne's butler and another survivor of the shipwreck, wants to take out of their hands.
Shaven-headed and vacant-eyed Paul Chahidi's Cox is faithless and mad with grief. Musing on murder in chilling, lacksadasical tones he embraces the Death God Locaha. 'There's a darkness in him,' Daphne says, her voice breaking just slightly.
So is it a film or is it a play? The NT Live season sounds new and innovative but it's not the first time a play has been filmed. The difference is that Nation is live, taking place as we watch. Does that really make any odds?
It does. Something of the magic of a live theatre performance carries over. It is surprisingly easy to forget that the screen is there and to get drawn into the story. At the intermission the audience applauds enthusiastically. 'You just don't do that at the cinema do you?' a woman asks outside. It's disorienting as the camera pans around to show the audience and it's not us.
'It doesn't seem fair,' a man comments over coffee. 'We can see them but they can't see us. Maybe we should have a camera in there too?'
It helps that the play is so good. Much of the exquisite staging is simple and all the more effective for it. A silvery blue sheet of material billows and flaps across the stage as the sea, and clever lighting is enough to invoke the swelling waters.
One of the most effective scenes is early in the play, during the wreck of Daphne and Cox's ship, the Sweet Judy. Suspended on wires the cast spin and twirl in slow motion through a mist lit with blue light. Soft gasps rise throughout the theatre.
'I'd rather see that than CGI,' the man with the coffee insists. 'Any day of the week.'
Should the puppets be counted as part of the staging, the props? They aren't real, but for the duration of the play we have to accept them as alive.
The Grandfather birds carry the spirits of Mau's honoured death, but they are a horror to him, with their hand-beaks, skeletal wings and the crawling, wounded gait of a dying thing, as well as to the audience. The actors interact with them as if they are real. They move as if they are real.
'You stop looking at them in bits,' Carr explained in a pre-show interview. 'They're not the puppet and the two people working them; they're a character in the play, in that world.'
Their convinction in turn convinces the audience. It works with the puppet child Twinkle even more than with the Grandfather birds. When it seems like he will die and his desperate mother clutches him tight before releasing him to the priest, more than a few people in the audience furtively wipe away a tear.
'This will not happen,' Daphne cries for us.
Taafe and Carr were good choices for their roles. Taafe conveys Daphne's vulnerability and fear with tilted chin and brittle voice, careful in her crinoline of where she sits and how she holds her hands. Mau is much more open to begin with, raging against the gods and prostrate with grief, but that changes as he grows into the role of chief.
There are times, however, when they are a little overshadowed by the supporting cast. Ataba's deep voice and considered movements, his white vestements standing out against the earth tones of the rest of the cast, commands the stage. And Milton, the foul mouthed parrot, played by Jason Thorpe in bare chest and a bustle, is a scene-stealer every time.
It seemed an odd decision at first, to use an actor instead of a puppet, but Milton's role in the play is essential. He's the voice of exposition, throwing in what needs to be said to move the plot from one place to the next. Along with the occasional 'boobies'.
At the end the cast receive a standing ovation from the audience, and it doesn't seem right that they can't hear us.
Click play for the reaction of some of the QFT audience