Olivier, National Theatre, London
3rd October, 2015, matinee
Next month, the Chancellor will announce new cuts to the arts. In a recent press release, Artistic Director of the National, Rufus Norris said that the theatre is prepared for various scenarios from their funding being cut by 25% to 40%. A revival, then, of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is smart programming. First staged at the Royal Court in 1988 in rep with The Recruiting Officer, Wertenbaker’s play was (and remains) so successful as it provided an argument for theatre in an era when its success was judged on its commercial power and ability to make money. The play charts the landing of the first English convicts in Australia and it’s not the first play to explore the subject. Steve Gooch’s Female Transport (1973) focuses on the occasional glimpses of friendship and humanity of the convicts and officers amongst the brutality of the prisoners’ conditions. But Wertenbaker goes further than that, delving into the good that theatre can achieve in society and the rehabilitative powers of art. The excellent as usual programme notes at the National also bring out the state of prison conditions past and present, and how art can be a helpful solution.
Nadia Fall’s production shows what a rich and theatrical play this is, but some of her directorial decisions seem flawed. For a start, Max Stafford-Clark’s original production made use of doubling which Fall doesn’t do, thus making some asides about doubling and using one’s imagination in the theatre not having as strong an effect as they might have been. She has also changed the role of the Aborigine, admittedly making him more present throughout than the text suggests but cutting some of his lines. Instead, his presence gives him the effect of omnipotence, giving those indigenous to Australia a knowing power, a role not unlike the Native American maid in Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County (2007). Something else which is impressive is how Fall, and Peter McIntosh’s colourful design, makes the best use of the Olivier’s vast stage and drum revolve to create a production that is in tune with the play’s theatricality. The revolving stage stops some of the action seeming static and provides a mightily impressive first scene on the ship, really highlighting the epic potential of the text. The revolve also splits in two, allowing one half to be higher than the other, thus creating a raised stage for the rehearsal scenes. Subtler moments are also made such as through Harry Brewer and Duckling creating shadow effects with the help of Neil Austin’s lighting. Cerys Matthews’ music also adds to and enhances the text, playing out over scene changes, although it is notable that she has also used music by Johnny Cash and onstage musician Josienne Clarke. Their work gives the production a folkish sound, the emotion of which works best when characters join in. Overall, this is a production which impresses the senses. But I wondered if this was at the expense of the text.
Part of the problem is that I know the play fairly well, but I wondered, if this was the first time I saw the play, would some of Wertenbaker’s thoughts have lost impact in Fall’s grand but sometimes splashy production? But, alas, maybe that is only a fussy point. After all, the Olivier stage has the advantage of emphasising the wider themes of a play, and there are still some moments of intimacy in this production. The cast, on the whole, deserve a lot of praise. Jason Hughes does a good job tying everything together, fighting for the play to go ahead and enduring an internal struggle of missing his beloved Alicia and falling in love with Mary Brenham. Paul Kaye is hugely convincing in a very difficult role as the drunk Harry, untrusting of his Duckling (an excellent Shalisha James-Davis), who eventually dies. Furthermore, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Jodie McNee and Ashley Bryant make for an engaging comic trio, but also show their characters’ struggles. McNee is particularly strong in the opening scene of act two. Finally, Matthew Cottle also pleases as the quietly pernickety Wisehammer. His character’s love of language makes for one of the most poetic and enjoyable scenes in the play. Fall has gathered a very strong ensemble overall.
This major revival of a modern classic generally ticks all the right boxes and makes for an extremely entertaining few hours in the theatre, but I get the impression it hasn’t reached the level of excitement as its original production. However, Wertenbaker’s play remains a strong and beautiful reminder of the restorative power of theatre. Let’s hope its messages have reached George Osborne. It's a great play and production but on consideration, this version doesn't quite fulfil the play's potential.
Our Country’s Good plays at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 17 October.