Our Country's Good, St James Theatre, London
Tuesday 05 February 2013
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the premiere at the Royal Court of Our Country's Good, the contemporary classic by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
Adapted from Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, which is itself based on historical fact, the drama tells the story of how, in a much-contested civilising experiment and in celebration of the King's birthday in June 1789, convicts were allowed to rehearse and perform in a production of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, the first play ever to be staged in the penal colony of Australia.
In 1988, Our Country's Good – which makes a trenchant and uplifting case for the transformative power of theatre – was widely regarded as an attack on the philistine Thatcherite ethos of the day. Now Max Stafford-Clark, its original director, has mounted this glowingly persuasive and beautifully cast revival in a new era of swingeing, lamentably short-sighted cuts. His company, Out of Joint, had 25% of its subsidy slashed in 2011
To raise money, Stafford-Clark even opened up rehearsals of Our Country's Good to a paying public. This was a shrewd move – not only newsworthy but aptly self-reflexive, given that the play lets us eavesdrop on the preparations for The Recruiting Officer. And it can't help but bathe in additional irony the great episode – electrifyingly well-played here – where a couple of the penal colony's most reactionary officers invade a rehearsal and inhibit and humiliate the prisoners only to be defied by two of the convicts who boldly persist in an elegant Farquhar duologue.
Wertenbaker's play is unashamedly idealistic but it's not sentimental. As Dominic Thornburn's performance finely traces, the director, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, starts off as a prim, guarded type, primarily motivated by ambition, and only gradually thaws as falls in love and as the project struggles to fight the institutional injustice that lands several of the cast in chains and one of the leading ladies under threat of hanging.
The uphill battle is often very funny. Pointed doubling, executed with tremendous vigour here, is built into the nature of the play, with the same actors portraying both the oppressors and the oppressed. It emphasises how many of these unfortunates, dumped on the other side of the world for petty crimes, were paying the price for being assigned the wrong costume (so to speak) at birth and how a theatrical production can offer a microcosmic image of liberating self-transcendence and true community. Warmly recommended.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election
- 2 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 3 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'