A young girl who's lost her brother washes up on a foreign shore after a calamity at sea and finds love with a handsome local bigwig. No, it's not William Shakespeare's much-revived Twelfth Night. It's the National Theatre's sprawling Nation, adapted by the usually caustic Mark Ravenhill from Terry Pratchett's young-adult novel and being given a lush -- and somewhat sentimental -- production by Melly Still.
Unlike the Bard's frothier tale, Nation appears to be a belated strike against imperialism and a hearty vote for societies and civilizations wherever they've developed. Rather than being invaded and subsumed, they must be celebrated and honored -- a notion that would not have received much sympathy in 19th-century England, but is undeniably popular now as the world gathers to help rebuild earthquake-shaken Haiti.
In Nation, new-to-the-island Daphne (Emily Taaffe) becomes enamored of benevolent leader Mau (Gary Carr) as well as the honest and open manners and mores of his people. Along with her loyal and nonsense-phrase-spouting parrot, Milton (Jason Thorpe, who's studied parrot movements closely), Daphne ingratiates herself with the indigenous population, and they respond warmly to her -- going as far as to defend her against members of her own shipwrecked crew. In time, Daphne's rank -- she is 130th in line to the British throne -- puts her in a position where she must choose between her origins and her newfound loyalties to a crowd much given to singing and dancing and worshipping an all-powerful god called Imo. What she decides she must do further emphasizes Pratchett's beliefs about disparate countries.
Still, who designed the enterprise with Mark Friend, has given the work a predictably lavish treatment. On territory meant to look like the top of a globe, Mau and his devoted followers cavort in Dinah Collins' brief straw-dependent garments. Behind them are three large screens where John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington project astonishing images, not the least of which is an attacking shark. Behind the screens and located elsewhere as well, musicians play Adrian Sutton's atmospheric music. Puppets, which are provided by Yvonne Stone, include a toddler several of the actors devotedly manipulate.
The humans involved -- led by the energetic and likable Carr and Taaffe -- give their all to the general merriment and the occasional encroachment of villains from what the islanders call "trouser men." Chief among the ensemble are Paul Chahidi as the blighter out to get Daphne as recompense for his own son's death, Gaye Brown in outlandish hoop skirt as Daphne's stuffy grandmother, and David Ajala as another declamatory denizen.
Among the parrot's outbursts is the phrase "There's nothing that a cup of tea can't put right, don't you find?" The declaration ends the first act, is repeated in the second act and is intended as a laugh line. It does, however, point at something the entire production embodies. Somehow Pratchett's conciliatory saga -- while intending to spoof the "cup of tea" philosophy -- ends up implying that a cheering and revivifying cup of tea in the form of a cheering and revivifying drama can truly put things right.