EUTC’s decision to stage Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good was a brave one: it’s not hugely well known outside the theatre scene, and tackles the complex subject matters of justice, criminality, and gender head-on. This production – with an ensemble cast led by directors Jane Prinsley and Luke Morley – rises to the challenge. Telling the story of the first British convicts to arrive in Australia, it becomes a surprisingly uplifting tale about the redemptive potential of theatre in the midst of chaos.
The production opened with ‘Narrator’ Sophie Boyle’s skilfully eerie violin solo that remains a refrain throughout, before exploding into the horror of the transport ships. Fom the beginning the audience is reminded of the physical and mental suffering endured by convicts and officers alike. It also made good use of Wertenbaker’s gender-blind double casting, drawing connections between convict and officer to undermine the binary between ‘sinners’ and ‘saints’. Despite being aware of this beforehand, early scenes were difficult to follow, with few visual markers to signify each character’s status and a huge array of personalities moving in and out of scenes. But it seems such confusion was deliberate, as the characters joke by breaking the fourth wall, warning the audience really should be discerning in a play as self-aware as this.
Our Country’s Good gained the best momentum during its ensemble scenes, with great interplay between the actors. The portrayal of the convicts felt, in particular, individual and humanised compared to the officers, some of whom simply had less stage time due to the nature of the play. Stand out performances were Erica Belton’s Ketch and Matthew Sedman’s Wisehammer, who delivered some of the play’s most poignant monologues. Other highlights included the interchange and physical comedy of Dominika Ucar’s Sideway and Jacob Baird’s Second Lieutenant Clark, as well as the spats between Hannah Robinson’s Bryant and Tiffany Garnham’s Morden, all of which brought much needed comic relief into what could otherwise have been an incredibly dark play.
The minimal stage design was effective in ensuring attention rested at all times on the characters and their relationships. The actors were continually present; even when not in the scene they remained dotted around the stage and audience, drawing attention to the meta-theatrical nature of Wertenbaker’s play and blurring the line between spectator and participant, prisoner and officer. Though the production underplays Wertenbaker’s imperial subtext (such as its Aboriginal narrator) this helps to keep it relevant to a contemporary context. Only a dismantled naval sail and ‘sand’ on the floor hint at the Australian setting; the directors’ focus on character and performance reflect the timelessness of their source material.
On this particularly cold night sat in Bedlam’s theatre, I didn’t quite feel like I was in Australia – but that’s not the point. This production of Our Country’s Good speaks not just to the transportation of convicts into 18th century Botany Bay, but to issues of power and redemption that are still relevant today.
Our Country’s Good
Runs from 26th February – 3rd March
Image: Louis Caro