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Original Theatre Company - Our Country's Good

On tour 2011.

Review from RemoteGoat.

Four stars
Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good concerns a group of English convicts and their hated naval gaolers sent to the 'new colony' of Australia in the late 1780s. It follows Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark's attempt to put on a production of George Farquhar's Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer with his motley crew of captives or as Major Robbie Ross RM calls them 'vice-ridden vermin'.

It's a noble endeavour that meets resistance from Ross (Adam Best) who holds the view that the theatre 'teaches subordination, disobedience, and revolution' and that it is absurd to think otherwise.

However, the intellectual and perceptive Governor, Captain Arthur Philip (Aden Gillet), maintains that the convicts are there to 'create a new society'. Their involvement in theatre would act as a humanising force and offer hope of redemption in a barbaric world. He further claims that theatre is an 'expression of civilisation'.

Nevertheless, even in this cruel world there is humour. For instance the rehearsal scene that ends Act 1. The convicts display a range of misconceptions about acting and despite their apparent sincerity results in some of the best comedy, especially Jack Lord as Robert Sideway who steals the scene. His display of grandiose theatrical affectation, attributed to having once seen David Garrick, lifts the spirit and lets the humanity shine through. You begin to see these convicts as worthy of opportunity.

It is probably not an easy drama to produce given that it has twenty-two roles and, in this performance, only ten actors. However, The Original Theatre's production shows the actors' skill as they seamlessly move from one character to another, doubling, and in the case of Philip Whitchurch and Rachel Donovan even trebling. Never once do we doubt or question their dramatic authenticity as they rapidly and emotionally switch roles.

On a simplistic level, we have a play debating intellectual arguments for and against theatre but more importantly, we have a play that questions human frailties and cruelties.

This satisfying and entertaining performance does not aim to answer all the questions but gives the audience enough evidence to make their own conclusions.


Review from The Times

Four stars
It opens with a shipboard flogging and a sad ballad of exile fading into the ancient drone of the didgeridoo. Innocently majestic, Seun Shote steps forward as an aboriginal Australian, gazing at the First Fleet of 1788 with its convicts and soldiers. “Is it a dream that has lost its way?” Maybe. It was a brutal thing, this deportation of thousands for trifling thefts, some of them pitifully young or old, some girls who were sold into prostitution in childhood. Those who survived fever, flogging or hanging were to be colonists. A new nation.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s marvellous, passionate play won an Olivier in 1988 at the Royal Court and here gets a full-blooded revival under Alastair Whatley. Imaginative re-creation of history frames a timeless affirmation of the power of dramatic art: of the self-transcending relief of sharing well-patterned words, identities and ideas. The governor frets about the narrow degradation of the convicts, and wishes they had some culture; a 2nd Lieutenant (played with vulnerable seriousness by Christopher Harper) offers to direct Vanbrugh’s The Recruiting Officer.

The debate among the militia splendidly reflects many modern rows about drama in prisons: some scoff at the waste of time, the apparent indulgence, the danger to discipline, while the Governor champions the usefulness of “refined literate language, well-balanced lines, expressing sentiments they are not used to”. Ten actors play 22 parts, doubling and trebling: Adam Best’s brutal Major becomes a tormented hangman, Jenny Ogilvie’s prissy Captain his convict whore. Rachel Donovan’s three parts include a wonderful Dabby, the homesick mouthy Devon girl, and Emma Gregory, as the roughest of the lot, rises to extraordinary dignity in the shadow of the gallows.

The cruelty pulls no punches, but there are moments of great comedy in the quarrelsome rehearsals (especially Jack Lord’s impersonations of how a self-absorbed pickpocket reckons Garrick would do it). The great cavernous space of this theatre, set only with sacks, poles and boxes as befits a wilderness camp, conveys the isolation and loneliness of “this foreign, upside-down desert”. If there is a disadvantage it is that more intimate scenes feel drowned, almost inaudible. But its power remains strong. As the Aborigine says, peering at the colonists, they are for us all “a swarm of ancestors, come through unmended cracks in the sky” .