'Our Country's Good' review or 'Who's up for some shadow puppets?'
Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker
National Theatre, 26th August 2015
Let’s be honest, a National Theatre production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play ‘Our Country’s Good’ – that school curriculum classic – is a bit of a gamble. Part of you is bored just thinking about it. It’s all going to be terribly earnest, a bit square and crammed with beautifully packaged revelations. It’s probably going to be useful – beneficial even – but bloody hard work.
But this is Rufus Norris’ National Theatre, chums, and that’s really not what he’s looking for in a show. Instead, I get the distinct feeling that Norris is very consciously encouraging his creative teams to release the shackles, shake themselves free and create a show that tingles and surprises – rather than worry about creating a significant, worthy and ‘monumental’ National Theatre event.
Nadia Fall’s production of ‘Our Country’s Good’ gets about half way there – it’s not an explosive show but it is teasing, thoughtful, sensual and subtle. There’s some rich and lively choreography from Arthur Pita, piercing folk songs from Cerys ‘Catatonia!’ Matthews (which don’t always work but are beautiful all the same) and an agile and striking set from Peter McKintosh. Despite all these great elements, this isn’t a production that’ll thump you in the chest - but it’s still heartening to see a team that’s trying to make each and every element of the stage, the wings, the theatre sing.
McKintosh’s set centres around the blessing and curse that is the Olivier’s revolving stage. The platform starts out as a ship, with the convicts trapped below and reaching up for the officers and freedom that lies just out of reach. Once the ship as arrived – overlooked by Gary Wood’s half-naked, painted Aborigine (who dances as if all the animals of the bush are trapped inside him) – the platform becomes Botany Bay in Sydney, where the officers and prisoners are now condemned to spend their days, all outsiders and all imprisoned in a land they fear and do not understand.
McKintosh’s set has very little clutter and, other than a large backdrop filled with streaks of colour – a sweeping suggestion of the endless bush that lies beyond - it’s down to the actors to fill the space. Initially, they struggle. The elevated platform keeps the actors at a distance and, as the British officers discuss how to keep the convicts in line – and finally come up with the idea of staging a play – it all feels a bit distant and dull. The stage feels too big and the production – which bears the hallmarks of a great, hot and multi-textured piece of theatre – threatens to engulf the actors inside.
Things get juicier when the convicts – including the rather angelic Mary Brenham (Caoilfhionn Dunne), her brassy friend Dabby Bryant (Ashley McGuire) and the human firecracker Liz Morden (Jodie McNee) - start to rehearse the play, an increasingly potent version of Farquhar’s restoration comedy ‘The Recruiting Officer’. The liberation that acting offers begins to clash in interesting and upsetting ways with the imprisonment that all these characters – convicts and officers alike – face. Above all, the rehearsals allow the characters to stop performing. Liz Morden gradually drops her ballsy bluster, Dabby Bryant begins to hope and dream of life back home and another prisoner forgets his predicament, just for a moment. There’s a piercing scene late on when a couple of lieutenants storm the rehearsals and the convicts freeze and drop their eyes to the ground. It’s as if the stage has been smashed to smithereens and any possibility of life or liveliness sucked right out of the place.
But – to be totally frank – you’d have to be pretty shite to mess up those rehearsal scenes. They’re rich and vibrant moments – of course – but the themes have been so carefully woven into the fabric of Wertenbaker’s play (itself an adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel) that it doesn’t take too much to make the scenes shimmer.
So, whilst Fall teases out some lovely complexities in these rehearsal scenes, her most interesting work involves the British officers. In particular, it’s the scenes with Lieutenant – turned director – Ralph Clark (Jason Hughes) that feel properly special. Every night, Clark sits at his desk and writes faithfully in his diary to his beloved wife back home. His diary extracts are filled with prim and proper thoughts - and yet, in secret, Ralph masturbates all over these tidy diaries, packed with ‘confessions’ that are really just further layers of pretence. As Ralph writes, shadowy and sexy scenes play out behind his tent. At one point, Mary – who Ralph is growing close to – sings a haunting melody just beyond his door. When Mary and Ralph finally admit their feelings for each other, Ralph confesses he has never seen a woman naked, not even his wife. The awful role-play required of a ‘gentleman’ in 18th Century Britain blasts through this lonely and haunting line - and that idea of social imprisonment, felt keenly across the whole spectrum of society, begins to take hold.
It’s these interesting textures – that life of shadows which plays out just beyond the lieutenant’s door – that fires up this show, if only for a few seconds. There are other little sparks too – such as when the aborigine skitters around the edge of the camp, reminding us of a world beyond that the Brits refuse to acknowledge. It’s as if the officers are living in the wings of a play they do not realise has begun. Sparks also fly when Josienne Clarke sings Matthews’ haunting melodies, which remind us of the purer emotions that lie beneath the skin of these hardened and conflicted souls. There are little suggestions of the rich and moving production this might have been, if only all those flickers had joined up to make one great fiery production; a good country, then, but not a brilliant one.