Saturday, 22 August 2015

'Our Country's Good' at the National Theatre

On Friday we went to see the new production of 'Our Country's Good' at the National Theatre, a tale of the first convict community established in Australia in 1788. The first performance was on Wednesday and it's still in preview but I don't care, I liked it! There's probably some trimming still to be done but, if anything, that only makes me want to go back and see it again. It also has music by Cerys Matthews in her first theatrical venture and that worked really well.

The play opens with an Aboriginal sitting on the stage painting himself in ritual patterns and then shifts to the transport ship full of convicts. And this is where I must mention the staging as another character. The stage is round and moves round, with half rising or lowering and, at the start, the whole thing rises up and up and up to reveal the convicts in the cramped holds of the ship, pushed together and swaying with the sea. The stage changes for every scene and works really well. As does the big projection on the back wall which looks very Aboriginal and the colours shift and change depending on the time of day in the play - it was very effective and atmospheric.

It's a hard tale of the transportation of those early people who built what is now Australia who were sent there through a corrupt legal system for stealing a biscuit or being accused of a random crime and having no representation as well as hard and fast pick-pockets and criminals. But they all bear the same brand. They're all criminals and this play really brings that out with debates about the nature of crime and its consequences, about rehabilitation and the soul of humanity. Can art and culture help to 'civilise' the convicts and make them productive members of society? Will putting on a play change anything? And, of course, the ever present Aborigine watching as the settlement grows and starts to take over with, at the end, the realisation that they've been given smallpox from the settlers.

There are some very interesting arguments going on in this play and it's span is very broad, covering a lot of ground. There are discussions between the characters of the women selling themselves for food, the casual violence between the convicts and the soldiers, and the soldiers feeling they're being punished for losing the wars in the Americas. And there's also consideration of the nature of love and lust, of the innate humanity (or lack of) we all have. And, wrapped around all of this is another play, the play put on by the convicts.

The play within the play is 'The Recruiting Officer' by George Farquhar (and, coincidentally, Farquhar's 'The Beaux' Stratagem' is also being performed on the same stage at the National). Leuitenant Clark volunteers to put on a play and starts recruiting a range of unlikely convicts as his actors, some wild and violent, others devious or meek. They learn their lines and learn to act as life in the colony goes on and some are accused of stealing food, are beaten and nearly hanged. The colony's reluctant hang-man is also one of the actors who measures one of his fellow actors, the wild and feared  Liz Morden, to be hanged. Initially refusing to speak at her trial she eventually does so to deny the theft for the sake of the play and her new-found friends and is reprieved.

It all sounds terribly serious and grim but it's not. Alongside the seriousness are some great big belly laughs (yes, even I laughed out loud) as the convicts talk about how to be actors - actors acting as actors talking about actors is a conundrum. It's made doubly interesting since most (if not all?) of the characters were real people who travelled on those first transport ships to the upside down world that became Australia. How on earth they survived for eight months at sea in those appalling conditions is a miracle and very topical with migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea today in flimsy boats for a better life in Europe.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production, from the hate-filled Major (Peter Forbes) spitting his lines to meek Mary Brenham (Caoilfhionn Dunne) who grows in confidence and the over-the-top acting of the pick-pocket Robert Sideway (Lee Ross) to the intellectual Governor Phillips (Cyril Nri).

There were some really good performances and I particulary liked the comedy and pathos of Jodie McNee as Liz Morden and the quick wit of Ashley McGuire (who I saw as an excellent Falstaff in 'Henry IV' last year) as Dabby Bryant who yearns to go back to Cornwall. The play also featured Paul Kaye as the midshipman who years for his love Duckling Smith (Shalisha James-Davis), one of the convicts, and Cyril Nri as the progressive Governor who is pragmatic but aims for rehabilitation. I'd also single out Gary Wood as the Aborigine, present almost continually but seemingly invisible to the settlers. Jason Hughes pays Leuitenant Clark who pulls his random convicts together and I liked the final scene with the convicts finally out of their rags and in costume for their rols as the play is about to start.

It's in that final scene where the title of the play makes sense - 'Our Country's Good'. Why on earth would the convicts think their country is 'good' when it's sent them to the other side of the world? When you add 'for' at the start of the phrase it makes sense - they've been transported for their country's good.

The music and songs by Cerys Mathhews were a nice touch to bring another level to the production. They're not intrusive - and this certainly isn't a musical version of the play - but they add emphasis. The songs aren't full three minute pop songs, more like snatches and phrases, a verse here and a chorus there and worked really well. One song sounded very Cerys and a recorded version would be good to promote the play. Good stuff Cerys!

I fully intend seeing this production again when it's settled into it's run. The writer, Timberlake Wertenbaker, was there last night sitting in the back row, and so was Lynda Baron who I saw earlier this year in 'Stevie' at Hampstead.

I also like the fact that these characters were largely real people with books about them and their circumstances. I really liked Dabby Bryant and in random Googling around the internet found her page on Wiki and was delighted to see that she did, indeed, make it back to her beloved Cornwall. Not for long, but she did it and became famous in so doing. Well done Mary!

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