Saturday, September 05, 2015

OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD at the Olivier - Freedom Through Theatre

In 1990 I saw Timberlake Wertenbaker's OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD in it's last few weeks at the Garrick Theatre and was taken by it's simple production and the way Wertenbaker interpreted Thomas Keneally's book The Playmaker which dealt with the first convicts who were sentenced to be transported to Australia for a range of both petty and serious crimes and how an officer uses the prisoners to stage an amateur production of George Farquhar's THE RECRUITING OFFICER.

This originally opened at the Royal Court and won the Olivier award for Best Play and, by the time I saw it after it's transfer, it had an impressive cast of Julian Wadham as the well-meaning officer and his convicts included Amanda Redman as quiet Mary Brenham, Tony Rohr as volunteer hangman Ketch Freeman, Nigel Cooke as keen amateur actor Robert Sideway, Ron Cook as the Jewish prisoner John Wisehammer, Caroline Quentin as bolshy Dabby Bryant and Linda Bassett as loose cannon Liz Mordern.  It is now revived at the Olivier Theatre and while the performances rarely match these, it was interesting to see it again.

What I did not realise when I saw it first was that the characters - officers and prisoners - are all, by and large, based on the real people involved in the first ever transportation to Australia that resulted in the staging of the amateur production of THE RECRUITING OFFICER in 1789.  Yes, while The French Revolution kicked off and George Washington was made President, while Fletcher Christian led the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty and William Blake published "Songs of Innocence", a small group of prisoners performed Farquhar's popular comedy to celebrate George III's birthday - I hope the irony was not lost on them.

Wertenbaker' has written a fascinating play which looks at the subject from both the officers and the prisoners perspectives but the latter come out as the real heroes of the piece.  However I felt there were times when Nadia Fall's production looked too exposed on the expansive Olivier stage on Peter McKintosh's stylised set with it's Australian desert backdrop but Neil Austin's lighting design was as exemplary as ever.  However I think the Lyttelton would have been a better fit.

Admittedly we saw a preview so hopefully the production might bed in better when the cast have the measure of the piece.  Standouts in the cast were Ashley McGuire as the wonderfully gobby Dabby Bryant, all bolshy front while quietly yearning to return home to Devon, Lee Ross as Robert Sideway the eager actor-to-be who has seen David Garrick onstage, Tadhg Murphy as the convict who is despised by the others as he has volunteered to be the colony hangman, Matthew Cottle as the word-loving Jewish prisoner and in particular Jodie McNee as Liz Mordern, burning with anger and resentment who is the most transformed by being exposed to kindness and the chance to find her own voice.

Jason Hughes as Ralph Clark, the officer who is also the play's director and Caoilfhionn Dunne as Mary Brenham, the convict he fell in love with, should stand out more but their plot-line felt under-played as did the sub-plot of the scenery-chewing Paul Kaye as the mid-shipman slowly losing his mind over his love of the convict Duckling Smith.  The latter was played by Shalisha James-Davis in a barely adequate manner.

Nadia Fall has made a major change with her production by adding a sung score supplied by Cerys Matthews which I suspect was done to give it more of an epic feel in keeping with the Olivier auditorium.  Some times it was effective - the convicts would surely have sung to themselves to keep their spirits up - sometimes it felt a bit too obvious.

If you have never seen the play before I would recommend seeing it as it makes for a moving, thought-provoking experience.

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