Convicts In Australia Find Redemption Through Theatre

Our Country’s Good ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 105 months ago

Last Updated 30 August 2015

Convicts In Australia Find Redemption Through Theatre Our Country’s Good 4
Photo by Simon Annand

Premiering at the Royal Court in 1988, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is already acclaimed as a modern classic, and watching this National Theatre production, directed by Nadia Fall, it is easy to see why.

Based on the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, itself inspired by real events, it focuses on Britain’s first penal colony in Australia in 1788 and explores how the convicts learn to find meaning in their lives by staging a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. The colony’s head Captain Phillip is shocked by the Royal Marines’ treatment of the convicts, and believes that it would be better to give them prospects and self-respect than simply hang them whenever they commit a petty crime. He therefore supports Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who is looking for some meaning to his own life, in staging the play, even though he knows he risks trouble by offending the more conservative elements of the military.

Song and movement are key components of the original play, but this production, which includes music by Cerys Matthews and choreography by Arthur Pita, exploits them to the full. Peter McKintosh’s sloping and revolving stage dominates the Olivier Theatre while red-soaked sand and a backdrop depicting the landscape in Aboriginal style complete the effect.

The play also considers the relationship of the British colonials to the natives. Many scenes see an Aboriginal figure gaze on the British as they feud as if to show how his affinity with the natural world will always trump the corrupt society that they have created. Things become more sinister, however, as we see what effect colonisation really has on the native population.

The weakest part of Our Country’s Good is the second half of the first act. Once the decision to stage the play has been made too much time is spent on rehearsals for it in which there are an abundance of routines that, although highly amusing, do little to move the characters beyond stereotypes. Once, however, the first major crisis arises at the interval and the obstacles then come thick and fast over act two we really feel the transformation that the characters undergo, especially since each is marked out as an individual for whom ‘redemption’ means something different. From among the strong cast the performances of Jason Hughes as Ralph Clark, Jodie McNee as the convict Liz Morden and Peter Forbes as the antagonist Major Ross stand out in particular.

Our Country’s Good is in rep until 17 October at the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX. For tickets (£15-35) visit the National Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.