Arts Reviews

Our Country’s Good @ Nottingham Playhouse

Set in the dusty wilderness of the first Australian convict colony, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 drama follows the efforts of young, idealistic Royal Marine officer Ralph Clark to educate the vice-ridden convicts through the medium of theatre. Proposing that the prisoners put on a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer, Lieutenant Clark finds himself caught between both the confused ignorance of the convicts and the violent prejudices of the colony’s officers.

I must admit the reason I wanted to review the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of Our Country’s Good is because once, nearly four years ago, I took part in a production of the play at the Nottingham New Theatre. I played the part of Ketch, the Irish hangman, who owing to his profession is widely loathed and not infrequently assaulted by the other convicts. Needless to say it was an interesting experience.

However, between practising my Ulster accent and being angrily hurled across the stage I did have time to consider that, far from being merely a period drama (despite the frock coats), Wertenbaker’s play in fact got to grips with a complex range of challenging social issues, including crime, poverty, prostitution, sexual violence, racism and even the very concept of civilisation. Since my early introduction to Our Country’s Good, I have remained intrigued to see how a professional company would approach the piece.

“Highly creative use of British sign language and audio description in virtually every scene”

Perhaps the most arresting difference was that the Playhouse, in association with the Ramps on the Moon organisation, had produced the play with a cast that was majority disabled. This was an unexpected but completely revolutionary take on the drama which meant that, rather than simply delivering the lines, the cast had to adapt to get them across to an equally diverse audience. In practice this was done through the highly creative use of British sign language and audio description in virtually every scene, with several actors delivering the prose of other characters.

As well as making the play more accessible to the audience, this aspect also generated a certain bond between the actors – particularly those playing the convicts – that added to the sense of community felt in the colony. The constant presence of at least one cast member either taking on the role of BSL translator or, in the case of the D/deaf actors, physically delivering the lines whilst the subject character acted them out, cemented the group’s sense of communal reliance.

“There was a noticeable divide between jailer and jailed”

I also believe (though cannot confirm whether this was intentional) that the fact that the use of disabled actors was mostly limited to the convict group (rather than the officers) meant that there was a noticeable divide between jailer and jailed. Perhaps I am reading into it too far, but I felt this very subtly hinted at a more contemporary message regarding society’s treatment of disabled people.

“Tim Pritchett was brilliantly awkward”

The cast themselves were excellently chosen. Tim Pritchett was brilliantly awkward as the desperate Lt. Clark, whose struggle to produce a play with a virtually illiterate cast is only made harder by his growing obsession with the leading lady, Mary Brenham (an equally excellent Sapphire Joy). I also particularly enjoyed the contrast between the enlightened Governor-in-Chief Arthur Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis, who some may recognise as Crazy Earl in Full Metal Jacket) and the savagely intolerant Major Robbie Ross (Colin Connor).

From amongst the colony’s lower orders, Fifi Garfield stood out as the bawdy yet fierce Dabby Bryant, the Devonshire girl who despite her feistily salacious attitude clearly harbours insecurities at being dragged halfway across the world from her home. Special mention should also go to Caroline Parker, who in addition to playing two separate characters was also constantly present to physically deliver – through speech or sign language – the lines of several fellow convicts.

“There were some elements that didn’t quite hit the mark”

Admittedly, there were some elements that didn’t quite hit the mark. The pacing of the play was a bit off at times, and the dialogue in the final scene was a confused jumble of non-sequiturs and random revelations (although I accept this is more of a problem with the script – indeed in the NNT’s production we only got round this by cutting the final few pages). Likewise the use of an Aborigine (Milton Lopes) between certain scenes seemed a little tacked-on. Whilst it would have been interesting to consider the Aboriginal experience of the early colonies, the irregular use of this character meant that it was only ever a brief distraction from the main events of the play, rather than a serious exploration of native perspectives.

“Sharp, witty and just a little unsettling”

A couple of minor issues notwithstanding, the Playhouse’s production was an excellent piece of theatre. The cast was able to tackle a wide range of highly pertinent subjects – from the benefits of education to the concept of innate criminality – whilst adding a new and indeed refreshing dimension to the play through their unique production methods. Sharp, witty and just a little unsettling, Our Country’s Good is a challenging drama that will leave you turning over the play’s messages in your mind long after the curtain falls.


Sam Young

Images courtesy of Nottingham Playhouse

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