OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD
St James Theatre 12 Palace Street SW1E 5JA To 23 March 2013.
Mon-Sat 7,30pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 264 2140.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 4 February.
The third time as comedy.
In an Australia new to Europeans, an enlightened governor instructs Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark to involve transported convicts in the civilising art of acting. Clark chooses Robert Farquhar’s comedy of love and soldiers The Recruiting Officer, and faces the problems of selling it on moral grounds to the clergy, overcoming the army philistines’ anger at a threat to discipline, and above all overcoming the convicts’ unfamiliarity with the imaginative act of theatre, including an inability to distinguish between character and fellow-convict actor – not to mention being unable to read in the first place.
Clark’s diaries, via Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel The Playmaker, inform Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play. This is original director Max Stafford-Clark’s third production, for his Out of Joint Theatre Company, of a piece which interweaves comments about theatre, its function and the relation between playwright and director.
What’s surprising is the humour. Whether it’s the director’s fresh look, a new, largely young cast, or the play’s relationship with a new decade, there’s a lot of laughter. The – sometimes literal – bruising moments seem less shocking (perhaps only to repeat experience) and the cast’s move from active involvement to detached submission when the anti-play officers arrive is less abject.
None of this makes things less serious. And Clark’s opponents have a point; rehearsals threaten discipline and allow convicts to escape. Yet escape is also evasion, from the opportunity to become part of a group where personality develops; as matters proceed individuals look with more purpose to their future in a new society.
There’s good work from several male actors, but the focus is on the women. Laura Dos Santos’s Brenham soon shifts from head-lowered sullenness to keen involvement. Far tougher is illiterate Liz Morden, soaked in criminality from childhood, who finally speaks with an elegance learned from Farquhar; her journey charted by Kathryn O’Reilly to avoid any falsity. Even Lisa Kerr’s Duckling can finally, alone, express grief and love.
Beethoven still accompanies the ending, but whereas the 1988 focus was on Clark and Brenham, the final picture is now of the cast sitting, composed, in the new society they’ve formed.
Aboriginal Australian/Captain Watkin Tench/Black Caesar: Damola Adelaja.
2nd Lieutenant William Faddy/Dabby Bryant: Helen Bradbury.
Reverend Johnson/Mary Brenham: Laura Dos Santos.
Captain Arthur Phillip/John Wisehammer: John Hollingworth.
Lieutenant George Johnston/Duckling Smith: Lisa Kerr.
Captain David Collings/Robert Sideway: Matthew Needham.
Lieutenant Will Dawes/Liz Morden: Kathryn O’Reilly.
Major Robbie Ross/Ketch Freeman: Ciarán Owens.
Captain Jemmy Campbell/Midshipman Harry Brewer/John Arscott/Meg Long: Ian Redford.
2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark: Dominic Thorburn.
Director: Max Stafford-Clark.
Designer: Tim Shortall.
Lighting: Johanna Town.
Sound: Andy Smith.
Dialect coach: Mary Howland.
Associate director: Des Kennedy.