The EUTC has a long history of creating ambitious productions with accomplished and mature performances from student actors, and it is likely that much of this expertise will be called into action in their upcoming show. I had the pleasure of sitting down with directors Luke Morley and Jane Prinsley, to ask them how they’ve approached such a mammoth task.
Our Country’s Good is a historic play which dramatises the true story of a penal colony in New South Wales, where recently arrived convicts and Naval officers stage a performance of The Recruiting Officer. Amongst a new world of chaos, injustice and hunger, the prisoners-turned-actors mould themselves around the play, and in turn are deeply affected by it. A testament to the humanising nature of theatre as well as an exploration into the passions which guide us all, Our Country’s Good is a brave but exciting choice for the EUTC.
Both directors were drawn to the play as a work with a strong message to convey: “there are really clear themes of inclusion, the importance of education, the importance of redemption and the importance of theatre. Although it’s set in the 1700s, it’s still very relevant” Prinsley says, demonstrating her belief that drama should be political. Based on Thomas Kennelly’s The Playmaker, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker wrote the play ‘at the height of Thatcherism’ amongst a climate of cuts and turmoil in the British prison system. With the current system being, as Prinsley puts it, returned to “a very similar place now” it seems the play is an ideal medium through which to highlight the current crisis in arts funding by emphasising its important role in rehabilitation.
Such an undertaking demands a cast that can live up to the challenge, and with 22 roles spread among a company of 12, most of the actors have been assigned dual parts. I asked the directors how they went about casting doubles; the split usually determined one actor plays both a convict and an officer. A deliberate choice of contrast and connection, Morley says, as the juxtaposition of characters demonstrates not only “the extreme difference between the two…but also how these diverse characters are linked”. Nodding, Prinsley adds “we’re all human”, it encourages fluidity in the audience’s sympathies throughout the play’s multiple redemptive arcs.
Our Country’s Good is a modern piece of ‘epic’ theatre that includes temporal transitions, “there will be one snippet that quickly jumps to three months later” Morley enthuses, it adds dimension to the characters within a shorter frame. To further embrace the notion of epic theatre, the production team is attempting something ambitious by recalibrating the performance space to allow for more interaction. The thrust stage develops the relationship between actor and audience. This staging was key to a conscious immersion in the drama, something Morley didn’t think was as possible with a traditional end-on configuration: “the play is about putting on a play, it’s the meta-theatrics of it…we wanted the audience to be able to see each other”.
Helpful to the challenge of transforming Bedlam’s performance space is that Our Country’s Good is the University English Literature department’s play of 2018. A competitive award, accompanied by a grant, both directors are keen to stress their thanks to the department for recognising the timely, resonant and exciting role the production will play. Tickets for Our Country’s Good are available now and the production will run from 26th February – 3rd March.
Image: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller