Thursday, 31 January 2013

Theatre review: Our Country's Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good toured last year, but that hasn't put original director Max Stafford-Clark off returning to it with his Out of Joint company to mark its 25th anniversary. The play has become an A'level set text, and accordingly the St James Theatre - where the new production ends a national tour - was fuller than I'm used to seeing it, largely with school parties. From the snippets of conversation I overheard, Our Country's Good inspires a lot of strong feeling in the teenagers who study it, and they seemed completely satisfied by a production that's been cast with a number of actors who aren't exactly household names, but will be familiar to theatre aficionados. Most of them have to play multiple roles in Wertenbaker's sometimes overtly Brechtian telling of the true-ish story of the early days of Australia, when some of the recently-arrived prisoners performed George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer.

Tim Shortall's set looks as if it's made from the used timber and sails of the ship that just transported prisoners and soldiers alike halfway across the world, where the surprisingly liberal First Governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip (John Hollingworth) goes against the firmly-held beliefs of many of his officers that the criminals are born evil, and instead insists that the new colony can be a place for redemption. But many of the old guard try to sabotage the play that's symbolic of Phillip's approach; to the point that one of its stars, Liz Morden (Kathryn O'Reilly) sees herself threatened with the noose on trumped-up charges.

It's easy to see why the play is used to teach the next generation of theatre-makers as it offers the opportunity for a masterclass in multiple doubling, and the suspension of disbelief needed to make it work, even as the text itself comments on this exercise for the imagination. The cast grab the opportunity with both hands and the production is full of memorable turns. Hollingworth seems a bit young to me for Phillip, but is excellent in his other role as John Wisehammer, the Jewish writer who really grasps at the dream of turning exile into opportunity. And O'Reilly nails both the gruff humour of Liz and her despair as her story turns nasty and the facade falls.

Ciarán Owens doubles as the most single-mindedly sadistic of the officers, Ross, and the unlikely sympathetic figure of the resident "Ketch" Freeman - the convict who took the job of hangman rather than be hanged himself. After a couple of hours of watching him be spat at wherever he goes, Ketch's announcement that he'd like to play all the most dignified roles in future productions elicited "aww"s from the audience. And Matthew Needham brings a cheeky-chappie humour to the character of Sideway, the pickpocket with a Garrick fixation.

After spending last year's Propeller shows mainly standing in the background looking implausibly handsome in a suit, Dominic Thorburn here gets more to do as Ralph Clark, the Lieutenant tasked with directing the play who ends up falling for his leading lady. It's the only role not doubled, but it's also one of the few thankless ones in the play: Thorburn gets some good comic moments from his character's prissiness but a lot of the time Clark acts as a mirror or conduit for other characters rather than being interesting in his own right. And although in reality Clark did father a child with one of the convicts, his growing relationship with Mary (Laura Dos Santos) is treated as quite tangential, and never gets the chance to build the emotional impact of the one between Harry Brewer (Ian Redford) and Duckling Smith (Lisa Kerr.) Also, the action cuts away from Ralph and Mary's love scene just before Thorburn should have taken his shirt off, which is just rude.

The inclusion of an Aboriginal Australian who occasionally comments on the action from his own perspective feels like a necessary angle to take, but I never feel like Wertenbaker completely commits to the concept so it's another element of the play that doesn't quite work for me (and I'm not sure why Damola Adelaja gives him an African accent.) But there's only a couple of these small elements that don't quite hang together in a play widely considered a modern classic. Although Our Country's Good feels fiercely political, not to mention topical with its themes of people on the bottom rung of society being dismissed by those with power, and of the capacity of art to improve the world, it also entertains and is beautifully acted here.

Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, based on The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, is booking until the 23rd of March at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.


  1. I thought you were exaggerating about the timing of that scene cut away. I was dismayed to learn you weren't. :(

    I suppose you've seen these?

    1. Well, those help make up for that crushing disappointment. Just a tad, like.