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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Ph: Simon Annand

It’s a crafty move, in these times of straitened arts funding, for the National Theatre to stage a dramatic cri de coeur for the civilising effects of culture. For that’s what Timberlake Wertenbaker’s much-loved modern classic Our Country’s Good (1988) is, despite all the external trappings of a piece about a penal colony in the just-settled Australia of 1788. Putting on a play, above all other things, is considered to be the right way for this uncertain new settlement in a strange new land to go. With the theatre, and the literate, communal work implicated therein, lies dignity and hope. It’s a lesson that we can usefully relearn time and again.

Dignity and hope seem a very long way off at the start, as a wretched group of convicts disembark at what would become Sydney Harbour, under the largely wrathful supervision of a group of marines and their commanding officers. A handful of expressionistic short scenes – there’s much use of the Olivier auditorium’s famous stage revolve – tell us all we need to know about the grueling journey, with its ravages of hunger, illness and sexual exploitation. Yet in this new isle, full of noises and watched over by a limber, bewildered Aborigine (Gary Wood), there is the faintest chance that things could be different, at least if humane commanding officer Captain Phillip (Cyril Nri) can win his men round from their predilection for violent and barbaric punishments of so-called “offenders.” Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jason Hughes) is to direct a group of convicts in Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, because “the theatre is an expression of civilisation.”

There’s a rich and varied cast of characters on offer, and Nadia Fall’s confident, fluid production does swift, skilful work in delineating them. Particularly appealing are the three women cast in the play-within-the-play: shy Mary Brenham (Caoilfhionn Dunne), buoyantly witty Dabby Bryant (Ashley McGuire) and self-elected hard nut Liz Morden (Jodie McNee). In the comparative sanctity of rehearsals, the trio unfold gradually from the closed-off default positions in which they have for too long remained stuck. Wertenbaker includes some knowing gags about the theatrical profession and its pretensions, but it is by no means all periwigs and greasepaint: at one point, half the cast are in chains in the colony’s jailhouse, necessitating the others join them there in order to carry on with their rehearsals.

Designer Peter McKintosh has done lovely work with the sweeping backdrop, a strikingly vivid abstract canvas in the style of aboriginal art. The changing light shades that pass over it are beautiful to behold. Equally fine is the sensuous original music that Cerys Matthews, late of Britpop group Catatonia, has provided. The soundscape is a haunting mixture of traditional folk tunes and original compositions, and singer Josienne Clarke performs the numbers in a voice to make hairs on the back of necks stand to attention. It’s not often that I go to a piece of straight theatre and ask if I can buy the soundtrack.


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