Hugh M Casey reviews Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
Mermaid’s production of Our Country’s Good, directed by Helena Jacques-Morton, was magnificent.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play arrives in Sydney with the convict ship Sirius in the 1780s, set during the founding of the colony. It is meta-theatrical at its core, as Captain Arthur Phillip (Madeleine Inskeep) allows Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Benjamin Davis) to stage a play with the convicts in pursuit of rehabilitation for those who will later populate the colony as citizens. As much as Our Country’s Good presents ‘a wannabe director trying to control an unruly mob of actors,’ in the words of Jacques-Morton, the play also addresses the forked conceptions of justice, survival and sexuality with theatre posited as a redemptive opportunity.
The play invites compassion beyond the criminal label, with each convict’s character developed beyond their chains, after initially stubborn facades give way to deeper perceptions. Duality is also keenly pursued with each actor playing more than one role. This, in corroboration with the humanising dialogue of the convicts, fades the hard line of social position with a brush of happen-chance.
There was a marked distinction between the two acts. The interlude came after a rehearsal is interrupted by the revelation that the food stores have been robbed and a prisoner escaped. Afterwards, that darkness which was only gestured toward in the first half was stripped naked in the second. Andrew Chalmers playing Midshipman Harry Brewer cast a grim shadow across any joviality in his descent from sanity into wretched regress, a cold guilt bruising his eyes through a twisting internal duologue.
Davis gave an outstanding performance. He held a natural and earnest presence throughout, whilst occasionally raising to meet the dynamism of Salisbury as Ross moves to crush the play in lieu of traditional retributive punishment. Salisbury was powerful across the stage, fierce and large. In one scene after the theft and escape Major Ross forces himself into the rehearsal and, after Second Lieutenant Clark asks insists he leaves to allow the convicts modesty in the acting process, he cruelly displays Sideways’ (Louis Catliff) lashing scars, and forces Dabby Byrant (Alice Gold) to get on all fours – ordering that she ‘wag her tail and bark’. Catliff showed excellent control as Sideways’ quivering anguish turned to immediacy when his character responded against Ross’s aggression and tried to prevent the humiliation of Mary Brenham (Inskeep).
Jen Grace was decent and funny as the stoic Liz Morden. As Morden faced hanging Grace illuminated the pressing doom with a moving stability. Jon White played the pained hangman Ketch Freeman with humility and Molly Williams was also endearing as John Wisehammer.
Captain Jemmy Campbell (Andrews Chalmers) was placed as the comic relief. The interjections were perhaps necessary to break through prolonged scenes that directly delve into penal theories. However, this relief soon became cheap; after each repetition the staccato laughter thinned further and further.
‘The Stage’ is a fantastic theatre space in 601. The stage design was striking and allowed variation throughout with moveable drapes fixing each scene from the rafters. However, the wee distance between stage front and the first seats muted some of the intimacy in scenes needing it. Furthermore, there were a few shaky uses of the projector screens on the surrounding walls. Mystical and lurid shots were voiced over, but there was a discernible gap between the start-up of the screens and the beginning of the sequence where a mouse cursor moved noticeably. I felt that the merit of the visual sequences did not benefit the rest of the performance but rather jaded the rhythm without true development.
Overall, the entire cast deserve huge praise. Each actor held multiple roles succinctly without errors, and they animated the stage together with cohesion and colour.
Rating: * * * *
Hugh M Casey
Photos provided by Mermaids