Watermill - Our Country's Good
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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - Our Country's Good

17th September to 25th October 2008.

From Newbury Theatre.

Life was hard in Australia after the first fleet of convicts arrived from England in 1788. There was a constant shortage of food, and morale was low among the officers and the prisoners. Governor Arthur Phillip’s idea of civilising the convicts by getting them to stage a play was not well received by some of the officers, but young Lieutenant Ralph Clark took up the challenge, seeing it as a means of advancement.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play is based on real events; all the characters existed, and the play they put on, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, was staged on the King’s birthday in 1789. As well as describing the production of Farquhar’s play, it covers the relationships between the convicts and the officers, and especially those of midshipman Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith, and Lieutenant Clark and Mary Brenham.

Ralph (Orlando Wells), initially self-righteous and priggish, warmed to the task of director and became an enthusiastic champion of the production. Far from the wife he left in England, he eventually succumbs to the charms of Mary (Alexandra Maher), his leading lady.

Jason Baughan gave a powerful performance as Harry, tortured by the ghost of the 17 year old convict whom he had hanged for stealing, and despairing of his fragile relationship with Duckling.

Like most of the cast, Paul Lloyd played two parts – officer and prisoner – doing a remarkable transformation from the imperious Scottish bully Major Ross into the cringing Irish hangman/convict Ketch. The doubling up of the actors was very effective, reflecting Ralph’s instruction to one of his cast, “You will play two very different characters and show the full range of your ability.”

There’s a lot of emotion in this play, brought out by strong performances from all the cast. Notable were Ruth Everett as Duckling, with her “If you live...” monologue over the dying Harry, Tanya Franks as Liz, agonising over whether to risk betraying her friends to save her life, and Simon Thorpe as the governor with a conscience.

This is a thoughtful and moving play, enhanced by the intimacy of the Watermill’s stage. Go and see it now, and then see Newbury Dramatic Society’s The Recruiting Officer, which follows it at the Watermill.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Redemption play

The power of theatre is the over-riding issue at The Watermill

Our Country's Good, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, October 25

Based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, this play about "how theatre can be a humanising force", as playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker describes Our Country's Good, tells the story of the first prisoners deported in a fleet of British ships to the penal colony in Botany Bay. Under the influence of Captain Arthur Phillip (Simon Thorp), Lieutenant Ralph Clark decides to cast the convicts in a production of George Farquhar's comedy The Recruiting Officer.

Armed only with two copies of the script, a reluctant and mostly illiterate troupe and a leading lady facing the gallows, the puffed-up Clark (Orlando Wells) struggles to keep rehearsals on track. While his boss intends an alternative entertainment to the public hangings, the lieutenant has his sights on promotion - and the quietly-spoken convict Mary Brenham (Alexandra Maher).

Many of his fellow officers are enraged that "murderers, rapists and thieves" will be let off manual labour, convinced that this will lead to mutiny.

The Watermill production depicts with raw emotion and realism, brutal floggings, hunger that drives the near-starving to steal food, knowing that death is the likely punishment; degrading sex that the women were subjected to and the hopelessness of people driven from their own land.

Just as the audience despairs at the incredible cruelty of men protecting their positions of power, bang, the lights are up, and the actors are in slapstick mode, hamming up the 'am drams'.

The balance between these two styles took some getting used to, but Alex Clifton's direction was excellent, particularly in the scene which saw an officer gatecrash a rehearsal - a harrowing 10 minutes as Dabby (Tonya Smith) is ordered to show how she begged for a biscuit like a dog when, on the boat over, she hadn't eaten for days.

Fellow actor and convict Liz Morden comes to the rescue, not with her usual violence, but by beginning again the speech that she had been practising at the time of the interruption - using the words to drive away their tormentor, while in the background we hear another cast member receiving a flogging.

This scene, a turning point in the convicts' attitude, answers the question that the captain asked earlier, "How do we know what humanity lies under the rags and filth?", with more clarity than the lengthy discussion between the officers.

At times, this production is very funny, and parts are played for laughs, preventing the more poignant moments from becoming too emotionally draining. However, the scenes which stay with me were those centring around Liz (played by Tanya Franks, who has perfected the hardened, expressionless face that betrays a dozen emotions). The most powerful moment came when, facing the hangman, she broke the convicts' code, to deny the charges against her.

Liz, whose language was the dialect of the criminal classes (used only when she delivers brilliantly a speech telling how she became a pickpocket and a prostitute), learns to talk to her rulers in their language.

Defending the decision to put on the play, the captain says: "A slaveboy can learn the principles of geometry as well as a gentleman", but what isn't explored is that, having alienated her from her own people, where does she now belong?

There were other issues touched on but not pursued, sacrificed perhaps for the main message of the redemptive power of theatre. The far-reaching topics raised in this thought-provoking play kept some of us talking until the early hours.

RACHEL HORNER

There are reviews in The Stage ("a theatrical and emotional cliffhanger") and TheatreWorld ("a substantial, stimulating and entertaining piece of theatre").