First Night: Nation, Olivier, NT

South Pacific drama stuck in shallows

With a good deal of theatrical fare designed for family consumption at Christmas, you can confidently check your brains in at the cloakroom and sit back expecting a certain end-of-term laxity on the artistic front. But not at the National Theatre where, if anything, the creative excellence has tended to be intensified and the intellectual and emotional challenge turned even more bracing in Yuletide shows such as War Horse, Coram Boy, and pre-eminently the adaptation of Philip Pullman's masterpiece His Dark Materials.

These last two spring to mind while watching this year's effort: a stage version by Mark Ravenhill of Terry Pratchett's hit novel Nation. But I'm afraid that the comparison does not work to the advantage of the new piece. As with a strand of His Dark Materials, we are in a parallel world. It's 1860 and two teenagers are hurled together as survivors of a tsunami that has destroyed the village home of Mau (strapping, loin-clothed Gary Carr), a native of the South Pacific island on which the posh, well-connected English teenager Daphne (squeaky Emily Taaffe) is shipwrecked. But His Dark Materials dramatised a colossally arduous rite-of-passage into puberty whereby two 12-year-olds from parallel universes embraced sexual love in a way that redemptively re-enacted the Fall. In the much shallower Nation, Mau and Daphne feel like crude counters in an exercise in politically correct sermonising about the superiority of science to religion which gets mixed, none too coherently, with sequences that depend on a sloppy cultural relativism.

Melly Still's production occasionally creates ravishing visual effects with its three large picture-framed aquaria which swarm with scene-setting video footage or fill with suspended, tumbling figures for the underwater passages or purl with blood during moments of violence. The tsunami begins with flapping birds and escalates excitingly into the spectacle of a model galleon that is flung into full-size mimed extremity.

But morally and emotionally, the drama is undernourished. The tsunami seems to cure Mau tout court of any fundamental belief in the patriarchal gods of his tribe and his rite of passage into the assumption of responsibility as adult head of his nation is insufficiently pitted with deep dilemmas, despite the need to protect his people from cannibalistic marauders without the support of religion. Meanwhile, irritating Daphne progresses too smoothly from patronising tea ceremonies, via queasy cultural trials that are reminiscent of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (a programme on which no one, as yet, has had to suck the teats of a drugged pig to nurse an infant) to squawky consciousness-raising about the tribe which she estimates had discovered astronomy thousands of years ago while Europe was still under an ice-cap.

There is some nice comedy about how Russian influenza propels Daphne's father, who is 139th in succession, to the English throne and some eleventh hour heartache when the demands of nationhood part the prospective lovers. But a lot of the show, with its banal grass-skirted song and dance and its civic studies slogans set to a bad Hair day score, lapses too easily into pious proclamations. Keats said that we were right to dislike art that has a palpable design on us. Nation is spectacularly designed but altogether too designing.