Our Country’s Good
Theatre Royal Stratford East, 28th April 2018
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is one of my favourite plays. As it is for many theatre-goers. The context, the “First Fleet” of British convicts sent to Australia with their Royal Marine guards in the 1780s, and the setting, Sydney Cove in New South Wales, are intriguing; the characters, which cover a broad spectrum of society at the time, are many, but go beyond mere sketches; the plot, incorporating a play within a play (sort of) as the convicts set out to stage a version of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer guided by the well-meaning Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, is perspicacious; and the messages many and critical. Above all it is accessible but not simplistic.
The play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, which I haven’t, shamefully read, and the novel and these historical events, (without the Farquhar play), were loosely dramatised by Jimmy McGovern a couple of years ago in the BBC series Banished. It is also no great surprise that the play is used as a text for various English Language examinations.
Can art, and specifically the theatre, play a part in “reforming” and rehabilitating criminals? Is “criminality” innate or born out of desperation? How is justice dispensed? What is a fair punishment for petty crimes? Why is society ashamed of taking retribution? How do the class system, and gender relationships, respond to, and evolve in, a new, and hostile, environment? How damaging is the force of colonisation?
These are some of the more obvious themes which the play contends with but there is also a pointed examination of the way in which we communicate, most obviously through the character of John Wisehammer, an outsider as a Jew, but who is educated and can read and write, in the relationship between Midshipman Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith, and in the lines from the Recruiting Officer itself. It also, through the play, shows what people are capable of if they are given an opportunity.
This production, the third from the seven theatre consortium that makes up Ramps on the Moon, underscores these dimensions. Ramps on the Moon is made up of a company of D/deaf, disabled, hearing and non-disabled cast and creatives who seek a similarly diverse audience and, outside of the productions, aim to ensure D/deaf and disabled people see the theatre as a realistic option on both sides of the curtain.
From my perspective, as non-disabled, the opportunity to see and hear the various solutions employed to present the drama and connect to the audience, was most welcome. The use of BSL and interpretation in particular added a whole new dimension to the play’s central message about the power of theatre and about who can make it. Jon Nicholls’s sound design and composition was first class, even between scenes. The production uses less doubling than the text allows, which sharpens the divide between captive and captor and lends clarity at the expense of the intended ambiguity. As it happened at the performance I attended Colin Connor ended up playing Harry Brewer as well as the prize shit Major Robbie Ross, a man beyond redemption. Serendipity indeed as he is a fine actor, though his eventual mental and physical collapse was a little restrained.
Caroline Parker, both in her role as “Shitty” Meg Long, as the voiceover and as BSL interpreter for Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling amongst others was excellent. Ms Salter, in this her debut performance, gives a master class in communication without words, poignant and aggressive as the action demanded. I was also drawn to Tom Dawze’s enigmatic Wisehammer, Gbemisola Ikumelo’s truculent Liz Morden, who remember eventually speaks out to save her life and secure justice, and Alex Nowak’s preposterous Sideway and priggish Reverend Johnson.
Fiona Buffini did a superb job in bringing all these elements together, including that part of the technology that was visible to me, and ensured that the plot was clear and ideas were foregrounded. She couldn’t quite avoid the signalling and exposition that characterises a handful of Ms Wertenbaker’s scenes, but that is true of every version I have seen, and there were a few moments where pacing was a little off-beam. Overall though this is a fine production that deserves to be seen by as wider audience as possible (it still has to go to Sheffield and Birmingham), and which sheds new light on this remarkable play.