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Our Countrys Good
I first saw this play in 1998 at the Young Vic, ten years after it was first produced at the Royal Court, where Max Stafford-Clark was directing, and loved it for its blend of history, compassion, wit and cruelty. I didn't love the cruelty of course, but recognised how important it was to show how far we have progressed in terms of penal reform and how precious is our present system of justice. Based on Thomas Keneallys novel The Playmaker, Our Country's Good is about a real life event in the 1780s when convicts in Australia performed George Farquhar's play The Recruiting Officer. It has become a modern classic and is on the A level examination syllabus ensuring frequent productions. Link to our review of The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012. go here.
Each actor, bar Dominic Thorburn as Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the British marine officer casting and directing the play, takes on at least two roles with clever costume changes disguising the switch. Central to the story is the hope of redemption for the prisoners when given the chance to change themselves through the medium of drama. Kathryn OReilly plays Liz Morden, a seemingly irredeemable convict, rough of voice and rough of manner, who is surprisingly cast as one of the plays female leads, Melinda. Prior to this play, Lizs only experiences of ladies was them screaming when she robbed them. Laura Dos Santos plays convict Mary Brenham who will take the female lead of Silvia and who, unlike many of the other women, can read and write. As Silvia finds her husband in The Recruiting Officer, so Mary will find her man through the play.
Besides the historical context and the sheer drama of this play, there are also many theatrical jokes as we watch the fledgling director Ralph Clark grapple with what must be the most difficult cast ever. “People who cant pay attention shouldnt go to the theatre,” he says in exasperation. We thrill to the pickpocket Robert Sideway (Matthew Needham) as he imitates the David Garrick style of acting with elaborate gestures and exaggeratedly eloquent and mannered delivery. Ian Redford takes on four roles, principally as Midshipman Harry Brewer, who is in a relationship with convict Duckling Smith (Lisa Kerr) and as John Arscott, an escapee who buys a compass from a sailor only to be told that the piece of paper with North drawn on it is useless. The scene where Brewer wishes his convict woman could show him some affection is touching. Jewish convict John Wisehammer (John Hollingworth) engages us with his knowledge of words and vocabulary and will continue with his ambition to be a lexicographer. A lone Aborigine (Damola Adelaja) commentates on the colony from his point of view. “Perhaps we should build an opera house for the convicts?” quips Captain Watkin Tench (Damola Adelaja) with the playwrights vision of hindsight.
The sets are minimal but effective. A curtain furls up on a mast as if it is a sail and then descends to show some of the flora and fauna and the views of the harbour, wooden decking conveys the ships deck and tremendous sound effects make the timbers creak and the waves crash. There will be floggings and hangings and at a poignant moment we will see Liz Morden being measured up for her hanging, the hangman making sure she will die quickly. It is a very complex play but Stafford-Clarks direction is as clear as crystal, making sure we can follow the main characters and their storylines. The complexity of Our Country's Good means it can be watched again and again and like good literature you will discover something new with each viewing.
This was my first visit to the new St James Theatre on Palace Street just a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace. The 312 seat auditorium has been modelled on the Trafalgar Studios conversion, a steep rake but every seat has good sightlines, even behind those tall, large headed patrons. There is a restaurant for fine dining and lovely bar food at the downstairs bar and do admire the splendid Carrera marble staircase up to the main restaurant named after it. Carrera.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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