Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Our Country’s Good, March 18, 2008

Our Country’s Good 
by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Preferred Play Company
Theatreworks, March 18 to 29, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Peering myopically at our Australian history, we can miss the detail of individual lives and see only the bigger political picture. Based on Thomas Kenneally’s novel, The Playmaker, Our Country’s Good zooms in on a microcosm of Governor Phillip’s (Mick Lo Monaco) infant settlement in Sydney in 1789. It provides a vivid, personal and often brutal portrayal of a few English officers and hapless, abused convicts.

Timberlake Wertenbaker uses historical fact interwoven with fiction. To please Arthur Phillip, Lt. Ralph Clark (Brendan McCallum), a modest young Royal Marine, attempts to stage a play with a cast of convicts. The cruel landscape of the convict settlement continually intrudes on his rehearsals.

Officers are resistant or downright obstructive to such a liberal endeavour to engage the convicts who are constantly punished for petty or fabricated crimes. Clark cannot predict the problems he will face. The headstrong Lizzy (Katya Shevtsov OK) may be hanged before opening night, Arscott (Brett Christian) is flogged senseless, everybody hates Freeman (Michael Wahr) who is the hangman and Clark falls for Mary (Marissa Bennett), his leading lady.

Glenda Linscott directs an energetic ensemble of recent VCA graduates with an assured and imaginative hand. She creatively employs minimal props ­– rope, trunks, a ladder – physicalisation and vocal effects to create multiple locations in the Australian landscape.

There is an old-fashioned charm in Wertenbaker’s period dialogue but it raises themes and issues relevant to our contemporary lives and to the theatre.  “Intelligence has nothing to do with the state into which we are born”, says one character. In this new colony, bigotry and social abuse are rife.

“This is theatre. We believe you,” says another character. The oppressed convicts keep trying to escape their real chains but, in the democratic theatre, they escape into another life through a role and pay each other respect as actors.

Our Country’s Good is a thought-provoking and skilfully staged production that deserves an audience.

By Kate Herbert

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