Our Country's Good

Tue 23rd – Sat 27th October 2012

reviews

Robin Gimm

at 00:27 on 24th Oct 2012

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Serious, philosophical reflections on the nature of humanity, coarse sexual innuendo, and a roller-coaster ride between hilarity and tragedy can all be found in the gem of a revival of "Our Country's Good." Director Max Stafford-Clark has come back to re-stage this absolutely lovely piece after 25 years with an amazing cast. The play does a wonderful job in showcasing the unique absurdity that arises from attempting to stage a play with convicts in an Australian penal colony.

"Our Country's Good" deals with themes including: the nature of criminality, the redemptive power of art, gender relations, and human degradation. The cast's high level of acting ability brings these themes poignantly to life by showcasing the thoughts and emotions of their characters in the context of various relationships. The play mercilessly toys with the audience's emotions by juxtaposing tragic scenes of flogging, torture, and sexual exploitation with moments of light-hearted humor. In many ways, the play mirrors the absurd human experience. Sometimes in the most abject conditions, people can only laugh or they will go mad.

Matthew Needham shines as the jovial Robert Sideway by getting the entire audience laughing with his flair for theatricality. And the tragic relationship between Ian Redford, as Midshipman Harry, and Lisa Kerr, as Duckling, almost brought tears to my eyes. It was a shame, then, that the chemistry between the Dominic Thornburn and Laura Dos Santos, the main pair of lovers, left much to be desired. But overall, there was very little to fault with the acting of the entire cast and was suitably impressed with all of the actors ability to change characters fluidly. Ciaran Owens is particularly impressive with his change in character from the antagonistic Major Ross to the rather diffident, reluctant hangman, Ketch Freeman.

The set design is masterful; it is both unobtrusive and enhances the meaning of the play. The entire stage, while transporting us to the various locations, constantly retains the appearance of a ship as well, reminding the audience that this entire moment in Australia is just a transitory phase, a moment of exile with the hope that one day everyone will go back home. The ship-like set, the various appearances of the aborigine throughout the play, and the foreign music all serve to remind us that these British characters, soldiers and convicts alike, do not belong.

"Our Country's Good" does depict the staging of a play and is willing to draw the audience's attention away from the plot and direct it to the experience of theater-going itself. The script is not above flattering the audience. The actors of the play all, with the exception of Dominic Thornburg, act as multiple characters. And there is a moment in the play where Thornburg's character remarks that an audience will be able to understand an actor's changes in character if they are focused, intelligent, and imaginative. So, of course, we all walked out of the theatre (presumably having successfully recognized the various characters) feeling like very good, intelligent audience members indeed.

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Melissa Thorne

at 07:33 on 24th Oct 2012

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We are immediately transported to the wilderness of the newly colonised Australia through the use of vivid sounds to evoke the Australian bush. At various points, the audience hears didgeridoo music and the calls of the kookaburra, whip bird, and bell bird, which are actively engaged with by the cast and text; for example, as they attempt to shoot a cockatoo and a cacophony of squawking echoes around the theatre. Even as the audience takes their seats, a large Australian map is projected onto a sheet which forms a backdrop to the staging for the play, to acclimatise the audience to these surroundings. This sheet is later unfurled to represent the sails of a ship.

The set itself is sparse – a box on top of a larger box with four ropes in the corners to allow movement – but it is extremely versatile and used to great effect. It is initially used to represent a ship, then later alternatively as a rehearsal space, a prison cell, an office, a rowing boat, a desk for meeting or is swept away to allow greater space for movement. This is effective as it draws attention to the actors’ individual interpretations of this set each time its purpose changes.

The actors have been given the tough task of having to change roles, which in the case of Ciarán Owens involves a complete reversal from a total villain to an endearing character, within seconds or minutes. In total, the cast of ten take on twenty two different named roles. Ian Redford plays four different characters, including ‘Shitty Meg’, a flamboyant woman who makes a brief, but hilariously outrageous, cameo. The director deliberately makes the audience conscious of this technique; most notably John Hollingsworth changes his costume on stage from his role as the convict, John Wisehammer, to the Captain Arthur Phillip. Therefore, costume is a very important visual tool in this play to guide the audience. There is a complete contrast between the dull brown tones of convicts’ clothing, as well as their general dishevelled and tattered appearance, draws and the brilliant reds and blues of the officers. This is one of many devices used to underline the injustice of – described as ‘the ugliest word’ in the English language in the text - the situation to the audience indirectly.

The cast claimed in a question and answer session that the decision to have multiple roles was for purely ‘practical’ and ‘economic’ reasons, but it fits wonderfully with the content of the play, as convicts take on different roles to provide themselves with freedom and escapism. The characters react to their new stage identities in different ways: Dabby (Helen Bradbury) wants to have a role which she feels reflects her own life, whereas others, such as John Arscott (one of Redford’s parts), find acting as a way of liberating themselves.

Thus, the cast here have a very difficult job, as not only do they have to frequently change roles, they also must play bad actors. This is used for comic effect, as Liz Morden (Kathryn O’Reilly) shouts out her lines, and then undergoes a miraculous transformation to become a gentile lady once handed a ‘fan’ and Robert Sideway (Matthew Needham) uses farcically exaggerated gestures, in an attempt to mimic Garrick. However, this in turn only stresses the tragic elements of the plot. The comedy and ridicule in the first play rehearsal gives way to tension and unease when the officers present in the second rehearsal show the cruelty which the convicts have become accustomed to within the camp. Elements of the play, including references to hangings, are shocking, and the actors do well to make unconventional characters engaging and heroic, due to their courage to overcome this cruelty.

The most interesting directorial decision is left until last. As the play-within-a-play structure reaches its climax, the audience watches backstage as the fruits of the rehearsal are shown to an unseen audience, whose existence is indicated by the use of sound effects. Thus, we are left wanting more, as we are kept away from the final performance of what we have seen building throughout the evening.

Most of the characters are based on real life figures or hybrids of several real people. The play is unsparing, despite moments of comic relief and a temporarily happy outcome, but this makes it more interesting and effective. The brutality of early settlements in Australia is in no way sentimentalised.

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