Nadia Fall directs a new version of Timberlake Wertenbaker's superb play about an Australian penal colony.
The wonderfully-named playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker has tightened her grip on the annals of history with this, the second major revival in two years for her classic 1988 drama about justice and redemption at the founding of Australia.
And good for her, but if you caught Out of Joint’s production at the St James a couple of years back I’m not sure you need to come running out to see Nadia Fall’s new one for the NT. Not that they’re especially similar: staged in the vast Olivier, Fall’s production is the epic – if not bank-breaking – take, complete with a huge cast, alluring, eclectic music from Cerys Matthews, a gorgeous, abstract painted backdrop of dreamtime Australia, and ethereal choreography from Arthur Pita for Gary Wood’s Aborigine, who haunts the British soldiers and convicts like a ghost, and is in turn haunted by them.
But ‘Our Country’s Good’ is not ‘Hamlet’ – its fundamentals don’t change with each fresh production. It’s set in 1788, as Cyril Nri’s decent Captain Arthur Philip founds Sydney with a crew of arrogant marines and damaged convicts, many of whom have been essentially written off as human beings for petty offences – stealing food and the like – which harsh Georgian England met with either banishment or death. They are hot, and bored, and demoralised. Into the fray steps Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jason Hughes), who decides that he can help the convicts and the colony via the redemptive power of art: he’ll direct the prisoners in a play, a production of George Farquhar’s classic farce ‘The Recruiting Officer’.
Fall’s production is strong on ‘Our Country’s Good’s moral dimension, the harsh, stark injustices rained down on a group of people who have been dehumanised by a system that makes no sense. The opening scene, in which the convicts are crammed like animals into the hull of their ship, is queasy in the extreme, as are the numerous sequences where some poor soul is punished by brutal flogging. It certainly feels like a play for cruel austerity Britain – Peter Forbes’s monstrous Major Robbie Ross would be a shoo-in for the cabinet.
But what Fall seems to almost totally miss – and Max Stafford Clark’s Out of Joint production really got – was the humour of the play. There’s just something fundamentally dour about this version, which is not as it should be with a text is stuffed with course humour and lovably eccentric characters – practically the first we meet is a prostitute called ‘Shitty Meg’. It’s almost too glum for its humanity to fully shine through – you’d have to be a stone not to be moved, but the warmth of the Australian sun has never seemed further away.