On seeing Gary Wood as the lone Aborigine on the huge Olivier stage as I walked into the theatre, I had a gut feeling that this would be a very affecting production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good. And this feeling wasn’t too wide off the mark.
Adapted from a novel by Thomas Keneally, Wertenbaker’s play takes us back to 1788 and the landing of The First Fleet in Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour). Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jason Hughes) undertakes to stage a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in an attempt to give some of the convicts a sense of purpose. Slowly but surely they do start to commit to the project and the regenerative power of drama is highlighted. As is to be expected, the project doesn’t enlist across the board approval. Many of the naval officers in charge of this ragtag bunch of supposed no-hopers believe it is punishment and not culture that should be used to bring them to heel. As a result there is violent conflict amongst the convicts and many of the officers, very much at odds with the redemption of the former taking place during rehearsals.
A large cast is assembled here at The Olivier and, for the most part, there isn’t one dud note. Even Cerys Matthew’s musical score is nearly always in tune with what is happening on stage. Two performances in particular are well worth a mention. Liz Morden, beautifully brought to life by Jodie McNee is the most belligerent of the convicts. A raging Scouser, who detests everyone and everything, she metamorphoses into a woman with a quiet dignity, which, thanks to McNee is totally and utterly believable. The other is Ashley McGuire playing Dabby Bryant, a girl from the West Country who poignantly longs to return to her beloved Devon. Sadly she never will.
Designer Peter McKintosh makes full use of the Olivier Stage, using its revolve to rise up and show the convicts in the cramped, claustrophobic hold during the first few minutes of the play. Plus he has created a wonderful backdrop, which perfectly illustrates what their first impression of this new land must have been. The bands of bright yellow, orange and red, very much in the style of an aboriginal painting, signify the blistering Australian sun. We’re immediately in tune with the suffering they’ve endured and the problems they have yet to encounter.
As I’ve said, the music mostly does justice to this iconic play, especially when Matthews uses traditional ballads and Josienne Clarke delights us with her beautiful voice. The only problems are that she also includes songs, which have a tendency to sabotage the play’s emotional depth and, their inclusion doesn’t help the lengthy running time.
These are minor quibbles. Nadia Fall’s production is, on the whole, a delight.