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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD
at the National (Olivier)

PLAY WITHIN A PLAY
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ashley McGuire, Jodie McNee, Debra Penny and Shalisha James-Davis/ Ph: Simon Annand

In keeping with its status as a modern classic, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, based on Thomas Keneally’s factual novel The Playmaker, has been boosted to CinemaScope proportions in director Nadia Fall’s visually striking National Theatre revival.
 
Originally staged in 1988 at the Royal Court, the play’s 23 characters were shared by a cast of 11, who, with the aid of subtle costume changes, played multiple roles. No such stinting at the Olivier. Each part is individually cast, and aided by the addition of three musicians as well as the theater’s enormous drum-revolve, a compelling story unfolds of how a motley group of barely literate convicts, transported from Britain for a variety of crimes to a penal colony in Australia in 1789, agrees to appear in Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer.
 
The brainchild of Captain Arthur Philip (Curil Nri), it falls to then willing Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jason Hughes) to stage the play exclusively with convicts. Faced with vehement opposition by several fellow officers, a vote is taken in Clarke’s favour and auditions and rehearsal begin. It’s a laboriously slow process, and after months of setbacks and numerous clashes, Clarke’s patience is vindicated and Farquhar’s play becomes the first ever to be performed in a penal colony.
 
So much for the plot. Underlying this unlikely but true story, however, are such major issues as man’s ongoing inhumanity (the brutal floggings and the starvation diet endured by the convicts en route to Sydney Cove beggar belief), the rampant class divide between the Royal Marines and the human detritus in their possession, the blatant discrepancy between the crimes committed and the punishments meted out for them, and, above all, the restorative and transformative power of theatre and the written word.
 
Though the irony at the core of the original Royal Court staging, in which the cast doubled as both the officers and their captors, is lost in this more expansive version, the epic sweep achieved in designer Peter McKintosh’s colour-strewn backdrop, the spatial use of the revolve, the (perhaps too) assertive deployment of Cerys Matthews’ eclectic musical score, the impact created by Gary Wood’s omnipresent aborigine and the color-blind casting, are bold and striking assets.
 
As befits a play in which the play’s the thing, there are no star performances. It’s an ensemble piece with fine work from Ashley McGuire as the unflappable Dabby Bryant forever yearning to return to her home in Dorset, Josie McNee as cynical, barely human Scouser Liz Morden, Lee Ross as a thieving, would-be actor, and Caoilfhionn Dunne as Mary Brenham, whose transformation during the lengthy rehearsal period of the play-within-the-play most embodies Wertenbaker’s potent central message. A first rate revival.

 


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