first night

Our Country's Good

Tash Cowley is impressed by the strong performances and visual spectacle of BTC's production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play.

Our Country’s Good is one of my very favourite plays; a set of British female convicts and Royal Marines are shipped thousands of miles across the ocean to New South Wales, Australia, where they will serve their sentences. One of the officers in charge, Lieutenant Ralph Clarke, decides to put on a play starring the prisoners, in an attempt to open their minds to civilised modes of behaviour and to incite some enthusiasm in them regarding a structured and “proper” way of living. The play is ambitious, questioning sexuality, the influence of authority figures, justice vs. convenience, and the general politics of life in a convict camp. BTC’s production was utterly charming; the entire play maintained a level of energy and focus which made it very accessible for the audience. While I do have some concerns regarding the treatment of the text as a whole, I thought the presentation of this incredibly demanding piece was handled with elegance and with lovely attention to detail.

 

The vast array of characters in this piece make it simultaneously difficult to direct and fascinating to watch. Visually, Julia Loveless created a lovely sense of balance on stage, which allowed the audience access to each character individually, while retaining a picturesque, portrait-like feel to each scene. It was aesthetically pleasing, with a backdrop of yellowish-white dust sheets (which looked beautifully similar to a ship’s sails, much like the one the convicts would have arrived on), simple floor-lighting and the integration of candles throughout the piece. This simple but effective theatrical backdrop, along with the audience’s feeling of being enclosed by the hanging black fabric, created a lovely sense of both intimacy and, at times, claustrophobia, both of which worked well for the text. Praise should be given to the actors who used the set well throughout; there are often difficulties when playing in a thrust-stage environment, trying to engage with an audience on three sides at once, but they handled it competently, with only a few instances of slightly artificial gesturing and movement.

 

The male actors in the cast were generally very strong; Dave Spencer as Lieutenant Ralph Clarke was cast very well, and brought to the role just the right level of shy intelligence and slightly nervous determination. His soft style of delivery and quiet poise was most effectively portrayed in the love scene with Maeve Scarry as Mary Brenham; the pair created a careful, tentative chemistry which was lovely to watch. Among the strongest of the cast was Felix Stevenson as Wisehammer, an incredibly difficult part to play and one which Stevenson attacked with admirable confidence. His characterisation of the part was by far the most complete, bringing a twitchy, fidgety, nerdy and very engaging energy to the stage. Wisehammer is actually my favourite character, and I have never seen him played in quite this style before, but it worked very well, particularly in the scenes with Mary Brenham; I think the whole audience’s heart went out to him as he discussed his favourite words in a sweet, socially awkward fashion. Dave Stodel is another worthy of recognition, as he had the difficult task of switching, sometimes rapidly, between the strong authoritative figure of Captain Collins to male convict Robert Sideway, another fantastically tricky role. Stodel’s Sideway was sprightly and very likeable, and he brought a cheeky, imp-like quality to the character who puts the camp into convict camp. Equally, his Captain Collins was powerfully portrayed, and he moved between these roles with ease. In terms of vocal delivery, Joe Burke as Major Ross was, for me, the most commanding, utilising an impressive Scottish accent alongside a command and understanding of the text which meant that his timing and pitch were never off the mark.

 

The women in this play often present actors with some very demanding roles, some of which I thought were very well explored. Charlie Deans as Liz Morden was brassy, foul and moody, everything she should have been. She engaged with the part emotionally, and took the audience on a real journey; special praise must be given to the horribly tongue-twisting and linguistically alien speech which opens Act 2. She handled the bizarre language with intelligence and real attack. Some of my favourite moments in the play directly involved the women of the cast; Rebecca Wallbank giving Dabby’s speech about how she misses English rain a sweet softness, and Iona Napier in the role of Duckling Smith effectively balanced her frustration of being a trapped woman and her secret love for Brewer, which climaxed very nicely in the scene where she begs him to stay alive.

 

All this being said, there are a few, mainly practical, issues that must be addressed with regards to this production. Firstly, I felt that the treatment of certain themes, especially those concerning the barriers of authority and the silencing of the voices of the convicts, were not developed early enough in the play. Certain scenes, in particular those of debate between the men in charge, are passionate, important moments; they have so much to say, and there were times where I felt the message was simply not delivered. Some of the men are fighting for the suppression and regimented discipline and caging of these women, some fighting for their sense of humanity and freedom; they should have been spitting fire at this point, but the language was often not utilised fully and fell a little flat. Additionally, the text gives the actors some incredible moments of imagery and story-telling which were not always expressed to full effect. For example, moments such as the memory of the tribulations on the ship, “three men on them at once; men with the pox, men with the flux, men biting like dogs”. These speeches are powerful and emphatic, and I didn’t feel that the real horror of these moments was realised. However, this is simply a case of pacing and pitch of delivery, which was otherwise generally very good. Such other moments as Liz Morden’s “trial”, where she reveals that speaking wouldn’t have mattered in the case of proving her innocence, is a huge moment, textually and thematically, and while Deans delivered it well and we felt moved by it, we didn’t know why, due to the lack of previous exploration of this theme. Additionally, the final scene where the word “tomorrow” is thrown around by several of the characters didn’t incite the significance of the word, the fact that it means something so different for all of them; Mary, Liz and Dabby, all have something to face the next day, but the delivery was too quick and the moment was lost.

 

The show closed with a torchlit silhouette of the first actor behind the dust sheets delivery her line to the audience; this intelligent visual manoeuvre created a cyclical lighting structure with one of the scenes at the beginning, also torchlit, where Sideway is being beaten by the officers. This was a lovely way to end, showing how far the convicts and other characters had come from that initial moment of punishment and hardship. While there were elements of the production that I felt fell a little short of the text, I generally enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm with which they attacked such complex ideas and characters.

4 March 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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