The original production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play, 'Our Country's Good' opened at London's Royal Court Theatre in September 1988, some weeks after their production of George Farquhar's Restoration comedy, 'The Recruiting Officer'. During the runs audiences had a chance to see the same cast in each production directed by Max Stafford – Clark. Wertenbaker's play was workshopped with the original cast and director for historical accuracy, content and script development using the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally as a strong inspiration. For research Wertenbaker and Stafford-Clark attended a play performed by prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs prison and were impressed by the serious dedication to the work by the prisoners and this observation fed into the emotional backbone of the eventual play.
The workshopping methods utilised by Stafford – Clark and his creative team became known as the Joint Stock method of play writing and script/story development. This is due to Max Stafford Clark's artistic tenure at the Joint Stock Theatre Company. The actors there were always encouraged to 'own' the play through their ideas and work in the development of the play script.
During rehearsals Max Stafford- Clark wrote a seminal book called 'Letters to George' which contains his almost daily thoughts on the rehearsals of both 'The Recruiting Officer' and 'Our Country's Good' as they developed and rehearsed. The so called 'letters' were addressed to the long dead playwright George Farquhar and throughout the writing the man from 1988 instructs the man from 1706 on the changes in taste, theatrical fashion and social behaviour which have overtaken the play. He also informs George on the usage of 'The Recruiting Officer' as a play within the play of 'Our Country's Good'. Historically, Farquhar's 'The Recruiting Officer' was the first play to be performed on Australian soil and was performed not by professional actors of the day but by convicts in the penal colony.
The play has received a variety of awards including a Laurence Olivier Award in 1988 and a Tony Award in 1991. Throughout its history to date many 'Our Country's Good' actors worldwide have been given critical acclaim and the play is very popular with audiences and young adult performers because of the compelling themes of sexuality, cruelty and punishment and the proposed idea that it is possible for theatre to be a humanising force. The play is also used as a set text for Advanced level Theatre Studies and also as a set text at AS level in English Literature Studies.
The production at Curve Leicester is directed by professional director Nikoli Foster collaborating with a cast of talented students from De MontfortUniversity Leicester. The cast of sixteen (with necessary doubling) play over twenty characters ranging from Royal Marines, dispirited convicts, and members of the Georgian judicial system all set in a penal colony in New South Wales Australia. Curve have once again turned their studio space into an 'in the round' experience repeating the success in creating a tense atmosphere that was so prevalent in their professional production of Abigail's Party recently. Only this time the acting space is much bigger.
The main themes of the play are the hope for goodness to be brought out of the so called criminals and the idea that theatre can be an expression of civilisation and the enacting of it can lead people to see another side of themselves. It is also about the frustrations in achieving such ideals under dangerous and trying circumstances. The De Montfort University Leicester students do a sterling job in realising these endeavours on the Curve studio stage.
Even before the play begins we have an impression of a scorched land envisioned by a rough Hessian flooring that in certain lights sometimes looks like the sea shore after the tide has gone out. The production standards are very professional and the many emotional and literal locations are delineated by rapid light changes and incisive sound effects. There is a compelling pulse to the action on stage throughout the entire show and this immediacy benefits the telling of the story. The actors work as a well trained ensemble creatively inhabiting the space so well it is sometimes a shock to realise that one is watching non-professionals at work. Occasionally there are small issues with vocal audibility but nothing that detracts from the general high quality of the piece.
In a mixed sex cast of sixteen, playing twenty-two parts in total, some of the female cast play both sexes, those of the men and women prisoners and those of the male Royal Marines. It all works thunderingly well. Lily Shaw Morris as John Arscott and Second Lt William Faddy is particularly outstanding. Shaw Morris has a vitality about her that lights up the stage and her performance is witty and one of total engagement in the piece. The key female role of Liz Morden (Abigail Colebrook) is finely executed (excuse the dark pun) and her near redemption at the close of the play shows in every smiling muscle of her face.
This is a great piece of theatre for an ensemble and the acting standards from all the cast is outstanding. Showy roles can often be overdone but not in the case of Nick Read's Robert Sideway. His character is almost relentlessly positive and hugely enthusiastic about Sideway's notion of what it means to act or completely over act. Read's portrayal of his studied 'attitudes' from a bygone age of theatre is one of the funniest moments of the evening. It would be a great compliment to say that Read's work reminds me of a young Tom Courtney. As one of the few men that doubled up roles Corum Franklin shows great contrast in two characters that are equally hated and feared but from very different perspectives. Franklin is all objectionable bombast and vile spitting bluster as Major Robbie Ross and, conversely, becomes a caring and unwilling hangman in Ketch Freeman a man shunned by his convict contemporaries in the penal colony.
Chris Howitt as the often frustrated Second Lt Ralph Clark puts in a very mature and subtle performance as a man in charge of directing the production of 'The Recruiting Officer' and who has the added dilemma of romantic feelings towards one of the women prisoners. Thomas Carter as midshipman Harry Brewer particularly excels in his mad drunk scene on the moonlit beach haunted by ghosts. This scene is beautifully realised as a haunting circle of echoes from the directorial work of Nikoli Foster.
The show is technically very sharp and down to the combined efforts of the professional staff at Curve and the DMU student technical team. Through the artistic collaboration the students from all the theatrical disciplines have tremendous opportunities to develop opportunities to very practically learn about roles both on stage and off. As in Max Stafford-Clark's original production the actors totally 'owned' this classy production of 'Our Country's Good' at Curve and should be very proud of their achievement.
Review originally posted on The Public Reviews website 16th April 2015
Photography credit: Pamela Raith Photography.