Transportation was a horrific punishment in many ways. People convicted for, what would be today, the tiniest crimes were taken from their families and friends, stuck on a ship for months, travelling in appalling conditions and then dumped in the colonies to serve out their time which could be anything from a few years to the rest of their lives. Not just that but when they got to the colonies, there were none of the trappings of a civilised country. Everything was rough and ready, living in tents, limited food and horrendous punishments for any misdemeanors, inflicted by, on the whole, rather brutal members of the army forced to be moved from their comfortable billets and look after the prisoners. For some, the worst aspect of life in the penal colonies was a lack of anything to do. But in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good at the Bridewell Theatre, both the convicts and the guards definitely find ways to pass the time.
The story starts in the hold of HMS Sirius, transporting convicts to Sydney Cove in Australia. Life is harsh and conditions are rough and convicts such as Mary Brenham (Sophia Papadopoulos) and her friend Dabby Bryant (Kat Novkovic) find they have to resort to desperate measures to get food. Arriving in Australia things aren’t that much better. The Governor General Captain Arthur Phillip (Simon Hill) – more liberal in his feelings towards the prisoners than some of the officers under his command, particularly Major Robbie Ross (John Irvine) and his sidekick Captain Jemmy Campbell (Theo Bhat) – wants to try and rehabilitate the prisoners rather than punish them and suggests that maybe the prisoners should put on a play in order to amuse and entertain themselves. Midshipman Harry Brewer (Matt Tylianakis), who has problems of his own – mainly centred around Duckling Smith (Jamila Jennings Grant), a young female prisoner he is having a relationship with – informs Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Sam Pearce) an ambitious young officer, of the Governor’s thought and Ralph agrees to put on a production of George Farquhar’s restoration comedy “The Recruiting Officer.” As rehearsals get under way, Ralph has to contend with not only dealing with a bunch of uneducated, unreformed prisoners but other officers who believe his endeavours are pointless and a waste of time.
Our Country’s Good is an interesting play in many respects. Not only with the story which covers a whole range of themes but also in the way it is meant to be staged with actors ‘doubling up’ as officers and convicts. On the whole, this does work but I did find the many scene changes, with subsequent changing of costumes, really slowed the pace down, particularly in the first half. By the interval, I felt that we had taken quite a while to not go very far. This was a shame as the second act really seemed to skip along nicely and, for me at least, really saved the production. It’s interesting that many of the characters were genuine historical people who either were transported to or served in Australia in the 1780’s which added a nice touch of realism to the writing.
The cast made a first-rate job of switching between characters, though some of the costume changes felt a bit long, especially as they were moving the scenery about at the same time. Elinor Turner, Clare Harding and Karen De La Poer have assembled some excellent costumes and wigs to fit out the officers and Governor, whilst keeping the convicts’ costumes simple and definitely indicative of their place in the hierarchy. Brian Tucker’s set, a slightly askew wooden box with a mast/tree on one side, worked well as a focal point for everything from the hold of the ship to the Governor’s office, and Director Chloe Robertson made full use of the space so that when combined with Adam Lockett’s sound and Adam Coppard’s lighting there was a real feel of old Aus to the production.
Whilst all the performances were good, the stand out for me was John Irvine as Major Ross. Ross is an arrogant bully – not just to the convicts but also to his subordinates – who barely tolerates the Governor General and John brings out every nuance of Ross’ personality with real panache. The scene where he interrupts the rehearsal, intimidates Clarke and humiliates the convicts is absolutely superb and John should be commended for his skill in delivering such a nasty creature to the world.
Overall, I’m afraid that I didn’t really warm to Our Country’s Good. I felt it was too long and the narrative flitted about too much with some scenes that really seemed to have little purpose in moving the story along. However, credit where credit’s due and from a production and acting point of view SEDOS have managed to put together a really good production that kept me interested from whipping to curtain up.
Review by Terry Eastham
“From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much eclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all; for be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good;
No private views disgrac’d our generous zeal,
What urg’d our travels was our country’s weal;
And none will doubt but that our emigration
Has prov’d most useful, to the British nation.”
30 years on from its premiere at the Royal Court, Our Country’s Good is a modern classic, exploring themes of crime, punishment and the unifying and civilising power of theatre.
Set in 1787, it tells the true story of a group of convicts transported to Australia who, faced with the appalling realities of life in a penal colony, come together to rehearse and perform a play.
CAPTAIN ARTHUR PHILLIP / SHITTY Meg | Simon Hill
MAJOR ROBBIE ROSS | John Irvine
CAPTAIN DAVID COLLINS / ROBERT SIDEWAY | Josh Yard
CAPTAIN WATKINS TENCH / CAESAR | Kieron Mieres
CAPTAIN JEMMY CAMPBELL / JOHN ARSCOTT | Theo Bhatt
REV. JOHNSON / JOHN WISEHAMMER | Dave McGroarty
LT WILLIAM DAWES / DUCKLING SMITH | Jamila Jennings Grant
LT JOHNSTON / LIZ MORDEN | Jessica Withey
KETCH FREEMAN / CAPTAIN WATKINS TENCH | James Haughey
RALPH CLARKE | Sam Pearce
MARY BRENHAM | Sophia Popadopoulos
SECOND LT WILL FADDY / DABBY BRYANT | Kat Novkovic
MIDSHIPMAN HARRY BREWER / CAESAR | Matt Tylianakis
DIRECTOR | Chloe Robertson
PRODUCER | Rebecca Kendall
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR | Matt Gould
ASSISTANT PRODUCER and STAGE MANAGER | Christina Wayman
LIGHTING DESIGNER | Adam Coppard
SET DESIGN | Brian Tucker
SET BUILD/ASM/SOUND | Adam Lockett
COSTUMES | Elinor Turner and Clare Harding
WIGS | Karen de la Poer
MARKETING | Angharad Corona
WARDROBE | Deborah Lean
PROSTHETICS and MAKE UP | Georgia Olive
GRAPHIC DESIGN | Jon Norton
PROPS and COMMITTEE LIAISON | Tim Garrard
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD
by TIMBERLAKE WERTENBAKER
Bride Lane Fleet Street
London, EC4Y 8EQ
23-27 October 2018