In 2008, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival staged an adaptation of Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick. And I clearly recall the moment when that production went from “interesting” to “Wow!” Morris Panych, working in a relatively small space and with a relatively tight budget, made the decision to do as much as he could with as little as he could. So: there was very little set (ladders, some bits of wood), essentially no text (no dialogue at all, a bit of voice-over narration but not much) – pretty much the entire world of the novel was conjured by the actors through movement.
But he did give the actors costumes. And at one point, the sailors climbed the ladders as if they were the ship’s rigging, whipped off their shirts, and turned them, in an instant, into sails. And the audience gasped: “Wow!”
There’s a similar moment in the recent production of Treasure Island by the Irondale Ensemble. Mister Arrow, the drunken first mate, is widely disliked among the crew, not to mention is a potential obstacle to Long John Silver’s mutinous plans. So when a storm strikes at sea, Silver makes sure Mister Arrow is good and drunk and goaded into staggering about the deck in the midst of the tempest. And suddenly, a wave of blue fabric surges across the stage, and Mister Arrow is never seen again. And the audience gasps: “Wow!”
The first requirement of the theatre is to be theatrical, and it continues to amaze me the number of productions that seem to forget this. This production never did. From the set, composed of a series of rolling flats and a handful of barrels, wheeled about and reconfigured to become now the inn, now a dock, now the ship, now the stockade; to the ubiquitous use of sea chanties; to the use of real gunpowder and real water (sprayed on the audience when a cannonball hit the surf); to that magnificent wave, these fellows (and they are all fellows – even Jim’s mother is played by a man) never forgot that their job was to put on a show. For that reason alone, I hope Treasure Island finds a new home for another run. And, though I imagine much of the cast couldn’t be brought together for another go, I wish they could, as they were uniformly excellent, particularly Tom Hewitt in the central role of Long John Silver, but also Rocco Sisto as Dr. Livesey, Steve Blanchard as Captain Smollett, and Ken Schatz as the lead singer of the sea chanties.
But also, this is just a marvelous story, one that I rather think boys (and girls) need to hear now more than ever. Jim Hawkins leads a life almost incomprehensible to a modern day audience. Not only does he go to sea at an age when modern American children are still being ferried about to their various activities, and not only is his voyage aimed at recovering pirate treasure (pirate treasure!), but, as Jim himself finally tells his piratical captors:
[H]ere you are in a bad way – ship lost, treasure lost, men lost, your whole business gone to wreck; and if you want to know who did it – it was I! … The laugh’s on my side; I’ve had the top of this business from the first; I no more fear you than I fear a fly.
Jim Hawkins not only participates in every key point in the plot, he is the initiator of nearly every action, and nearly never acts at the direction or instruction of an adult – and frequently acts against them. And yet, he is not operating in an adult-free zone; he is the only boy in the group.
It’s amazing when you think about it. I read the book recently to my son, and I remember remarking to myself as I read it that Jim seemed to regard the whole thing as a lark. He gets an idea – to go to shore with the pirates; to capture the ship – and he just up and does it, even though his life is in mortal danger. It’s not that he has no fear – it’s that it never seems to occur to him that he should be following anybody else’s lead, much less anybody else’s orders. It’s really astonishing.
This stage adaptation blunts this a bit – in the service, I suspect, of making Hawkins believable to a contemporary audience. So: Hawkins doesn’t sneak ashore with the pirates; he is kidnapped by them, taken as a hostage. And the idea for cutting the ship loose doesn’t come from Jim’s own head anymore; he hears the adults talking about how somebody needs to do it, and he goes and does it (on his own initiative, it’s true). And Jim and Silver have a final moment together, where Long John has the opportunity to kill Jim, but doesn’t do it because, one supposes, he’s come to love the lad. The real Long John would never have done such a thing – nor would the real Jim have put himself in such a position. So this Jim is a bit more of a kid than Stevenson’s original. But he’s still an amazingly resourceful and independent-minded boy.
Rumor has it that the production was originally intended for a Broadway run, and wound up in Brooklyn when the original plans fell through. Whether or not that’s true, the space they did wind up in served the production extremely well – you couldn’t achieve a similar intimacy in a Broadway house. But I do hope they have the opportunity to bring Treasure Island to life before additional audiences, whether in Manhattan or touring the provinces.