AS PREDICAMENTS go, it is dramatic. It is close to opening night and it is entirely possible that the leading actress is not going to be around. Not because she has got a better offer, but because she is going to be hanged.
There is nothing worse than the sound of theatre talking to itself but there is nothing self-congratulatory about Timberlake Wertenbaker's magnificent Our Country's Good, revived by Out of Joint. It is a thrillingly theatrical juxtaposition of life and death, a cross between Crime and Punishment and all those backstage plays which cry "Let's put the show on right here!" You want to understand why theatre is still important? Look no further.
Wertenbaker's characters are an ill-begotten group of convicts deported to Australia in 1789 where their lives are harshly ruled by officers with little regard for anything but the letter of the law. Yet she refuses to resort to cardboard characterisations. Everyone is subject to the command of a governor (Jonathan Cullen) who looks upon his hopeless "criminals" with a rare degree of humanity. His belief in redemption through the healing processes of art leads him to sanction the convicts acting in a production of Farquhar's comedy, The Recruiting Officer.
There is plenty of good dialogue, but more than any other of her plays this shows Wertenbaker's understanding that it is structure and metaphor which create real drama. The placing of actors and scenes makes you understand the power of her arguments. That is displayed with startling clarity in the doubling-up of roles by the cast who play both officers and convicts.
The most brutal of the officers (Declan Conlon) insists on watching rehearsals. Disgusted that the fledgling actors wish for privacy and have a personal modesty, he tries to degrade them.
This is followed by the same actor playing the jibbering convict whose job it is to prepare his fellow prisoners for the gallows as he measures up the play-within-a-play's fearsomely sullen leading actress (Sally Rogers). Technically, we are watching a vividly theatrical metaphor. Not that we care: we are too busy being moved by the juxtaposition of what we see and hear and thus feel.
Max Stafford-Clark, who first directed the play in 1988, is back and again proves that there are no small parts in his productions. The detail and compassion in the tiniest moments takes your breath away. In the beautifully orchestrated final scene, Sarah Walton quietly releases her character's soul with the words, "I love this". She is not alone.
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