Royal Theatre tries on Hanesbrands

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by Anthony Harrison

The curved, skeletal ribs of a pirate ship loomed over the stage as people of all ages packed the theater for Treasure Island. The swell of the sea roared along with the din of the crowd.

But that was all across the pond.

Only seven people sat in Winston-Salem’s Hanesbrands Theatre, including the projectionist.

They watched a screened broadcast of the Royal National Theatre’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

National Theatre Live brings the top-notch productions of England’s greatest theater company to Winston-Salem. Earlier this season, Hanesbrands showed David Hare’s Skylight, Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem and George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, the latter starring Ralph Fiennes.

Sunday’s matinee was an encore screening, but the experience remained just as thrilling.

Before the show started, Emma Freud — famous English broadcaster and Sigmund Freud’s great-granddaughter — interviewed Polly Findlay, Treasure Island’s director.

“[Keeping the show kid-friendly] was something very much in my mind when approaching this production,” Findlay said. “There’s a way to be visceral while also embracing these audiences.”

Treasure Island stands as one of the classics of the adventure genre. It established many public perceptions of pirates, from “X marks the spot” to seamen with peg legs and talking pet parrots, while the narrative also challenged black-and-white notions of morality. For these reasons, it’s one of the most adapted works of Western literature, and every adaptation stands against the rest.

Playwright Bryony Lavery decided to push the tried and tested boundaries with her dramatization — for one thing, main character and narrator Jim Hawkins was turned into a girl.

Jim “Jemima” Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) and Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill) marvel at constellations, shown by a planetarium in London’s Olivier Theatre.
Jim “Jemima” Hawkins (Patsy Ferran) and Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill) marvel at constellations, shown by a planetarium in London’s Olivier Theatre.

Up-and-coming stage star Patsy Ferran played the teenaged “Jemima” Hawkins with wide-eyed charm, and her androgyny wound up being the butt of many jokes.

“Be you boy, or be you girl?” Billy Bones, a canvas of tattoos played by Aidan Kelly, asks Hawkins off the bat.

“That’s my business,” Hawkins replies, to laughs from both the crowd in the Olivier Theatre and the baker’s half-dozen in Hanesbrands.

Hawkins wasn’t the only new woman in the cast: Dr. Livesey (Helena Lymbery), Israel Hands (Angela de Castro) and Tom Redruth — changed simply to Red Ruth (Heather Dutton) — were also played by women.

“If we absolutely obeyed Treasure Island, the only woman character would be the mother,” Lavery said in an interview shown during intermission, “and I didn’t think that would be fair to girls.”

Strangely, somewhere during the gender swap, Israel Hands morphed from terrifying villain — one of the most intimidating characters in classic children’s literature — to a bumbling fool, exploding herself with an errant match thrown into a powder keg instead of dying at Hawkins’ hands from the crow’s nest.

But gender-bending wasn’t the only deviation from Stevenson’s sacred narrative.

Long John Silver — the public’s imagination of the grizzled old seaman — transformed from hulking to handsome when played by Arthur Darvill. While Silver’s appearance changed, the effect wasn’t simply superficial. Turning Silver into a younger man made his conniving intelligence and moral complexity all the more compelling.

Additionally, while Treasure Island established the cliché of “X marks the spot” on treasure maps, Lavery flipped the discovery of Captain Flint’s treasure completely on its head. Instead of a skeleton pointing to the treasure, the pirates must find the cache through a complex series of riddles, eventually searching through a series of underground caverns.

The subterranean environment showed off the incredible stage the Royal National Theatre constructed for the show.

A large, circular portion of the stage could elevate to display the Admiral Benbow Inn, the lower decks of the Hispaniola and the series of tunnels beneath Treasure Island. This dynamic layer-cake could also rotate between scenes, spout fire and undulate the island’s bubbling mud pits. It was a mesmerizing, living organism; a true marvel of stage design.

That’s perhaps the most important thing National Theatre Live delivered to the small audience in Winston-Salem. While Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro all produce high-quality theater, the production values evident in the Royal National Theatre outpace most of what can be accomplished in the Triad.

National Theatre Live provides a service to Hanesbrands Theatre and those who attend the screenings. The program shows what’s going on in the London theater scene without the expense of flying across the Atlantic to witness startling drama.

With its dry English humor, marvelous staging and innovative casting, Treasure Island stands as a glowing example of that scene, breathing new life into a venerated story.