Our Country’s Good – A Play For Today
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
Eighteenth century Georgian England believed in the Criminal Class, a strand of society that was born inherently bad with little prospect of change or reform.
And the practice of deporting convicts to the four corners of the Empire, particularly America, was all very well until the War of Independence started, robbing Britain of its open-air prison across the water.
A solution was needed, the penal colony of Sydney in Australia was born, and it was the journey of that first convict ship consisting of 790 male and female prisoners – along with 700 marines, sailors, officers and their families – that most likely provided inspiration for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s wonderful play Our Country’s Good.
I have seen it before but last night’s offering at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – a co-production by Nottingham Playhouse Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, a company dedicated to Putting D/deaf and disabled performers at the heart of its work, was amazing.
The challenge of bringing such an emotionally charged and textually complex work to life is hard enough, but to do so utilising sign language, wheel chairs and actors with hearing impairments, was a triumph of theatre.
In a modern society that has become increasingly selfish and inward-looking, Director Fiona Buffini challenges us to take a long hard look at ourselves; our prejudices, blind beliefs and those things that imprison every one of us on a daily basis.
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Our Country’s Good tells the extraordinary true story of a group of convicts and a young officer who rehearse and perform a play – Australia’s first theatrical production. With a reluctant and illiterate cast, opposition from some officers and a leading lady who may be hanged, it had little chance of success. But succeed it did.
At its heart the play examines the concept that art and theatre is a force for good and can change people for the better but, in order for this to work so brilliantly, Wertenbaker juxtapositions a range of polarised characters.
Major Robbie Ross is Colin Connor’s unforgiving, barbaric Scot full of hate and determined to punish at any cost, whilst Tim Pritchett is Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark – aka the convict’s ‘director’ – who steadfastly tries to engage a belligerent cast whilst surrounded by mounting opposition from key military. Only support from the Governor in Chief (Kieron Jecchinis) can safeguard opening night.
His ragbag group of players have been brutalised by life. Liz Morden is full of anger – Gbemisola Ikumelo’s characterisation is powerful and believable – whilst Alex Nowak is Robert Sideway, Shakespeare’s ‘Bottom’ intent on correcting his director at every turn with best advice on how everything should be done; so funny!
Wertenbaker’s play invites us to look beyond the superficial, to put our judgements to one side and to try and understand why someone has been brought to their current situation. The implication is a simple one; it is easy to be ‘good’ when you are educated, well fed and your father is the Justice of the Peace. Poverty and crime is reserved for those with empty stomachs!
The play is as relevant today as it was in 1988, inviting us to raise our heads from our phones and to look around at those to our sides.
It has large swathes of humour but, at its heart, Our country’s Good is a play about redemption and forgiveness, not just of the convicts, but of those who would believe they were somehow untainted by life simply because they were in the King’s uniform.
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Until April 21, 2018
Our Country’s Good – A Play For Today, 13th April 2018, 9:53 AM