Thursday, 27 August 2015

Theatre review: Our Country's Good

Whenever I review a Shakespeare play, I make a note in the subject line of the company or venue, as there's so many productions of his plays I think it's best to be clear which one I'm talking about. I almost feel like I should do the same for Our Country's Good, because despite only first seeing it in 2012, this is now my third production. Timberlake Wertenbaker's play is an undisputed modern classic (though not one of the 101 best play ever according to Michael Billington but it's fine - he asked an imaginary woman what she thought and she agreed with him.) Based on true events, it follows one of the first shipments of convicts to be transported to Australia in 1788, to the area that would become Sydney. For the duration of their sentences they will remain prisoners, watched over by the army, but when their time is done they'll be sent out to colonise the new land.

It's perhaps with this in mind that the governor, Captain Arthur Phillip (Cyril Nri) views his responsibility as not just to punish but to rehabilitate the prisoners. With their spiritual health in mind, he appoints Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jason Hughes) to direct the convicts in a production of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer.

Although I love the play I had wondered if another production in London was really necessary, but Nadia Fall's staging does feel fresh and brings new perspective to it. As with the first show in Rufus Norris' tenure, this takes a play written for a small stage, with a small company of actors frantically doubling roles - there's even an in-joke in the play about suspending disbelief in those circumstances - and expands it. But where Light Shining in Buckinghamshire's shortcomings were utterly exposed in the Lyttelton, Our Country's Good convinces as a true epic in the Olivier.

With a much bigger stage to work on than usual (the play was written for the Royal Court Upstairs, and often tours in small productions,) Fall has added a lot of music, a combination of folk songs and original compositions by Cerys Matthews. These are probably why the play runs significantly longer than usual, but it doesn't drag as, together with a fairly simple but dramatic use of the drum stage by Peter McKintosh, they add a powerfully atmospheric edge. It also means that the Aborigine (Gary Wood) goes from silent observer to a large part of the sound and visuals of the production, dancing above the action and swinging a bullroarer to create an eerie background sound.

With the actors no longer taking on as many roles as usual (there's just enough doubling to make that joke work,) it takes a while to get familiar with everyone on stage, but by the interval it's become clear how many strongly defined characters Wertenbaker has created. I'm not sure about casting Ralph as about 20 years older than usual, his naïveté becomes problematic and I still don't really buy his relationship with Mary Brenham (Caoilfhionn Dunne.) But as the play-within-a-play gets a cast, there's a standout turn from Jodie McNee as the feral Liz Morden, whose transformation Phillip hopes will be an inspiration to the other convicts; and who becomes a target of those officers who don't want to see their prisoners humanised.

This humanising process also sees comic elements as the prisoners reveal personalities that'll surface in any other production: Dabby (Ashley McGuire) has a Bottom-like enthusiasm for the play, the pickpocket Sideway (Lee Ross) is a Garrick-worshiping ham, Wisenhammer (Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle) a pedantic lover of words. Tadhg Murphy is good as Ketch Freeman, although I think Fall's production underplays the sheer hatred the other prisoners have for the hangman: I don't often come out of a play wishing an actor had been spat on more, but I do think some of the poignancy of his wish to play dignified roles has been lost.

Opening the play up like this also exposes the subplot of the dying Midshipman Brewer (Paul Kaye) and his turbulent love for Duckling (Shalisha James-Davis) as somewhat tangential to the main plot. But if Our Country's Good is an imperfect masterpiece, it's still a masterpiece, and it adapts well to its new home, revealing itself as a moving, atmospheric epic. If you've managed to miss it until now, this is a great chance to catch up with one of the great plays of the 20th century.

Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker is booking in repertory until the 17th of October at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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