Our Country’s Good is a modern classic- generally regarded as one of the best plays of the last century. It won several high profile theatre awards on both sides of the Atlantic for its writer Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988 and it is now being given a revival by its original director Max Stafford Clark for Out of Joint Theatre Company which is touring before a short London run.
It is a completely authentic piece of writing based on original sources and using characters based on real convicts who put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in their penal colony in the 1780’s. It is a piece of writing which has both a clear and rigidly formal structure and a great heart. These convicts are dangerous people who know suffering and injustice and their captors are men far from home who are struggling with their own prejudices and limitations as they dispense horribly cruel justice and begin to wonder whether it is justified or morally beneficial. How far the convicts are capable of redemption and moral growth is one of the central issues of the play. Theatre may have the possibility to transform lives and give dignity but it may also be a subversive force which destroys the fragile status quo. Which will it be? The young officer who directs the play believes in the first possibility, supported by the colony’s governor, and in spite of appalling difficulties the rehearsals go forward. As the story plays out there is both broad comedy as the novice actors struggle, two moving love stories between officers and convict women, tragedy and transcendence. These are full blooded characters facing a situation packed with drama, the lifeblood of a great play.
This is a real ensemble piece, a play where the company work as a whole mostly playing two or even three parts and it needs to be fast and minutely organised. This demands an outside eye and a disciplined approach and it is where a director can really earn their fee. Max Stafford Clark obviously couldn’t know the play any better having already directed a fine original production and his skill allows you to marvel quietly as the perfect clockwork of the staging moves forward and concentrate on the characters. They are worth concentrating on, well played and dynamic by a mostly very experienced cast. The women are particularly strongly played. Laura Dos Santos has a nice simple, shy goodness as Mary Brennan, protected by her friend Dabby Bryant, a lively spirited performance by Helen Bradbury. Lisa Kerr is particularly moving as Duckling Smith and it is not difficult at all to imagine that Kathryn O’Reilly’s Liz Morden is the most dangerous of the women- though even she is not without a vulnerable side. Many of these people have been driven to do what they did by desperation not wickedness.
The officers of the penal colony are a diverse bunch, and in some ways they have also been deported. Their situation is also harsh and they are just as vulnerable to the severe conditions and the threat of starvation as their captives. They are drawn to find comfort from the convict women, blurring the boundaries further, and while some of them revel in the cruelty they are asked to dispense others question their own morality and dignity. Ralph Clark, the young officer who directs the play, is one of the second kind. Dominic Thorburn gives him a touching dignity and watching him try to hold onto his sense of human goodness and loyalty in the face of appalling difficulties is fascinating. The play is as much a lifeline to him as it is to the convicts and allows him to grow and find love and compassion as he works on it. His mentor the governor, Captain Arthur Freeman, is given great dignity by John Hollingworth, who also plays the convict John Wisehammer. This is a clever piece of doubling within the play as it is clear that Wisehammer could very easily have taken on a role of that kind had life dealt him different cards. I was very moved by Ian Redford’s performance as midshipman Harry Brewer. Harry is desperate for love and warmth in a harsh world and uncertain of whether he has really found it with Duckling, who he loves desperately.
Watching this story unfold and knowing that it is based on truth you can’t help but be humbled by the strength of the human spirit and how it may be able to retain a capacity for love, dignity and compassion against all the odds. Certainly a great play and one which has stood the test of time better than most. This story will never become untrue or outdated. It is a portrait of a fascinating moment in history which can still speak to us now.