West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds.
Wednesday 14th November 2012.
Our Country’s Good, a co-production by Out of Joint Theatre Company and Octagon Theatre Bolton; directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewed by Holly Boyden- First year English Literature and Theatre student.
‘So you want these vice ridden vermin to enjoy themselves?’
– Major Robbie Ross, Our Country’s Good.
I first came across the play Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, I was perusing a book of audition monologues (a deadly sin when auditioning for drama school I know,) and I discovered Liz Morden’s speech. I like playing ‘bad galz’ so I delved around to find a copy of the play. I read the blurb and didn’t like the look of it. I didn’t get it, it was historical, and I couldn’t do a decent cockney accent anyway. I tossed it aside and carried on moseying my way through acres of Acykbourn and Minghella. I forgot about Our Country’s Good until this autumn when I heard that it was on at WYP. I wasn’t too fussed but I knew that I had to see it in order to penetrate my ignorance; it frustrates me when I don’t like a play and many other people do. I think my thought process was; ‘If the WYP are putting it on then it must be a good play. Holly you’re uncultured. Go and see it.’
I did not know the play well before I saw it, so I feel it probably needs a bit of explaining. Our Country’s Good was written in 1987-8 and is based on an earlier play by Thomas Keneally called The Playmaker. The action takes place in Sydney, Australia in 1789 (weirdly enough a re-jig of the year that the play was written in...) and chronicles the relationships between a group of dauntless convicts, the British Army and a rather unconventional process of rehabilitation. The kernel of wisdom at the centre of the play is the redemptive power of theatre, a topic that we touched on in my theatre lecture this week, so the timing was pretty decent. Against all the odds, and against the better judgement of many of his comrades, the play’s sweetheart, Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Dominic Thorburn) puts together a production of The Recruiting Officer, (a 1706 play by George Farquhar,) with the convicts as the actors. The rehearsals, the production and sense of camaraderie that it entails seems to transform the lives of the convicts, (I say seems, because the play ends as their play begins, and we can only hope that they lived happily ever.) The scene that closes the play is heart-warming and industrious, and the sentiment that swells through the auditorium is epitomised by Mary Branham’s (Laura Dos Santos) line; ‘I love this!’ We see the convicts transform from ‘vice ridden vermin’ to actors, to stronger human beings with renewed self belief and dignity.
The cast were good actors; distinctive, responsive and they oozed together perfectly, especially in the second act. Kathryn O’Reilly stole the stage with her gritty and feisty portrayal of Liz Morden; every time she spoke I couldn’t help but hang on her words, and she could provoke minutes of raucous laughter just by a simple twitch of her face. I don’t think I’ve seen an actress so well suited to a part for a while, and I particularly fell in love with her because of her similarity in talent and looks to one of my favourite actresses, Ann-Marie Duff (Shameless, Elizabeth I, Parade’s End.) Another inspirational performance came from the stunning Lisa Kerr who played the troubled strumpet Duckling Smith. Angst was coursing through every vein of Kerr’s face and body, and at times she seemed to be both the youngest and the oldest person in the world. She also did a mind-blowingly good Irish accent, the relevance of which however, I am still not sure of, as from the programme, her character (as they are all based on real people) appears to have come from London.
Despite some powerful acting, artistically and directorially, I felt that the production played disappointingly safe and there was a definite whiff of what I call ‘RSC traditionalism.’ By this I mean that there were no surprises in the staging, (the painted backcloth was dreadful, almost pantomime,) and there were no outstandingly creative pieces of devised work. Our Country’s Good is a play that I feel could really be transformed with the implementation of some inventive physical theatre technique and costume, and this was nowhere to be seen in this production. It may be because I have just seen the stratospherically innovative Beautiful Burnout by Frantic Assembly, or it may be because the play was done by the same director who first directed the play in 1988, nevertheless, I was underwhelmed by the rather unimaginative approach and couldn’t help thinking; there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Our Country’s Good has the good or bad fortune to be one of those plays that many people study at A-Level, (although I didn’t and was silently thanking god that I didn’t have to.) It may be that you really need to understand the text and its nuances in order to appreciate the play fully, but I’m not a fan of most things historical or military, the stereotypes confuse me and remembering the dates bores me. I have to be honest, after all that is the aim of this game, and even after quite enjoying this particular performance and being truly inspired by the acting, I still do not actually like the play. This is definitely a matter of taste as opposed to anything being wrong with it, as the play has been counted in the top fifty of the twenty-first century. It must simply be down to the fact that I’m dreadfully morbid and the conclusion is a bit wholesome. Chuck me a bit of Sarah Kane any day.