By Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Alistair Whatley
Company: The Original Theatre Company
Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston
Date: Thursday 2nd February 2012
We saw this play many years ago at the Royal Court (1988) where they played it paired with The Recruiting Officer, the play being rehearsed by the convicts. The casts were the same, so we had all the fun of seeing the actors rehearse as convicts and then play the same parts for real. As it happens, we’re going to see The Recruiting Officer in a few weeks, as Josie Rourke has chosen that play to start her Donmar reign; although the actors won’t be the same, it will be interesting to see the combination again.
The Recruiting Officer is a very funny play; Our Country’s Good makes full use of that comedy to lighten the darkness it’s exploring – our treatment of convicted criminals a couple of centuries ago, which just happens to be very similar to current events in many ways. Even if we hadn’t seen the play before, we had plenty of advance warning that it was a serious piece as we groped our way to our seats through thick fog. (Oh alright, it was only a light mist, but I have to keep my spirits up somehow.)
The set was evocative; there were two wooden frames which dominated the stage, and one of them had some pulley tackle attached which could have been on a ship or part of a construction site, both appropriate for the play. There were wooden boxes scattered around the place as well, and these performed a number of roles – mainly furniture, but they even stretched to a rowing boat at one point. A table was brought on from time to time as needed and there were blankets for the stage curtains; that was about it. The convicts were in tatty clothes of the period, while the officers wore splendid red coats and wigs. There was also a Reverend dressed in sombre black. As almost everyone doubled up at least once, the women all played officers as well – one played the parson – and they all did a very good job.
The opening scene is set on the ship taking the convicts out to Australia. As one chap was being flogged by a couple of the officers on the central frame, the other convicts huddled on the front of the stage, singing a song. The image of brutality was very clear. The next scene introduced us to the Captain and some of the officers. Their conversation covered the nature of the penal colony they were now running, their differing attitudes on punishment vs. rehabilitation, and the unusual flora and fauna to be found in this strange land. Despite professing some enlightened views about providing a civilising influence on the convicts, I noticed it was the Captain himself who was the first to shoot something.
We then met Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a young officer missing his wife back home terribly and keen to find some way of earning his superior’s approval and preferment. One of the men suggested to him that he stage a play using the convicts as his cast, and he decided to act on this. The rest of the play showed us the casting process, the convicts’ different attitudes and abilities, the response from the officers, especially those who objected to the play being put on, and the developing relationship between Ralph and Mary Brenham, his lead actress and one of the few convicts who could read. The final scene showed the start of their performance, with the stage audience on the other side of the curtains as we watched the back stage preparations. From the reactions we could hear, this was going to be a total success, and rightly so.
There was so much meat to this performance that it’s hard to know where to begin. The story was told very clearly, and at times it was difficult to watch. The abuse of these people, treating them as sub-human when they were mostly ill-educated and poor, was beyond moving. These were harsh times, and people were being transported for stealing a loaf of bread. The number of lashes needed to be effective was being discussed by the officers at one point, and two hundred seemed to be a reasonable amount to them – it’s clear they never expected to be on the receiving end. I soon found myself longing, as the prisoners did, for the relief of a rehearsal scene; even so, the author cleverly increased the tension by having the most unpleasant officers invade the final rehearsal we see and, overriding Ralph’s protests, abuse the convict actors horribly. It only stops because one of them, the most enthusiastic actor of the troupe, starts performing and the others join in, a brave choice in the circumstances but the only possible one if the play was to go on.
From time to time throughout the play, one of the natives came on stage and commented on what he saw. At first he thought these strange white people were part of a dream, but it didn’t take him long to realise they’re no dream; nightmare more like. Just before the final scene, as they were setting up the stage, the native appeared again but this time he was covered in sores from the diseases the white folk have brought with them. This oblique referencing of the natives’ experience was very powerful, as it emphasised both the impact which the new arrivals had and their disinterest in the native population – two hours of soapboxing wouldn’t have been so effective.
I want to remember so much about this play that I know I won’t be able to get it all down in time. There were so many layers that I’m still discovering things as I write. The discussion among the officers showed us their brutality, and with the doubling, it emphasised for me that the officers and men were just as brutal and uncivilised as the prisoners, but with the power they had they could express it more easily. There were educated prisoners as well such as Mary and John Wisehammer, who was also interested in Mary but had to watch as she and Ralph gradually became an item.
Harry Brewer represented the guilty conscience, as his obsession with the ghost of a man he’d hanged on ship eventually drove him to madness and death. His relationship with Duckling Smith, in which he wanted some kindness and she withheld it until it was too late, showed the difficulty for women in those conditions. They were expected to provide ‘comfort’ for the men, but how could they then have any affection or tenderness in a relationship?
Ralph’s gradual change from dedicated husband to Mary’s lover was nicely done, and there were many lovely moments in the performance. I did find it hard to hear the lines occasionally – Liz Morden’s story was particularly quiet – but it didn’t stop me understanding what was going on. The music was good – we like traditional folk songs – and the cast did a fantastic job. It’s still early in the tour, so it may even improve, though we were very happy with our experience.
It’s a dark piece covering a difficult subject, and it’s a shame there weren’t more people in the audience to appreciate this excellent production. I can understand the difficulty, but this is definitely a modern classic – should be done in schools if it isn’t already – and I wish them every success with the tour.
The Original Theatre Company website – www.originaltheatre.com
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me