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Our Country’s Good at the Theatre Royal Windsor

Published by: Clare Brotherwood on 19th Nov 2014 | View all blogs by Clare Brotherwood

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Today I am jubilant! I spent last evening in a theatre full of young people watching an extraordinary play which extols the virtues of… theatre.

There can be no better way of attracting new audiences than this production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, based on the true story of convicts staging George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in Australia in 1788.

Co-produced by Out of Joint and the Octagon Theatre Bolton, it is directed by Out of Joint’s artistic director Max Stafford-Clark, who commissioned the play for the Royal Court Theatre 25 years ago after reading Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker.

You can tell this production has been put together with the care and love Stafford-Clark must have for his ‘baby’. He’s nurtured it well, and his theatre company gives it the respect this modern classic deserves.

What hits the audience immediately is Tim Shortall’s simple but stunning staging: set against an ever-changing skyscape with backcloths rigged up as sails, the action takes place on a large raft in front of which is the outline of the Sydney coastline looking as if it were a beach meeting the sea. The effect is more than augmented by Johanna Town’s atmospheric lighting and Katy Morison’s sound effects.

The cast first appear as in a tableau, but the stillness is quickly shattered by the off-stage flogging of a convict, his perpetrator running backwards and forwards with bloodied hands – for this is at times graphic, with violence, sex and offensive language playing a large part.

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Pictures by courtesy of the Theatre Royal Windsor

But it is Captain Arthur Phillip’s liberal treatment of the convicts which is the kernel of the story. The First Governor of New South Wales, who sees theatre as ‘an expression of civilisation’, assigns the sensitive Lieutenant Ralph Clark to direct the convicts and, by treating them as human beings, we see astonishing transformations, not only among the prisoners who work through their petty differences and jealousies, but also the officers. As the programme notes state: ‘In 1988 the play and the production were hailed as a celebration of the humanising force of theatre… Just as Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was a paean of appreciation of the NHS, so this is of the theatre’.

Most of the cast members play multiple parts (and genders) and, to be honest, the women playing the convicts are the stronger characters and performers, though Simon Darwen is memorable for his entertaining role as East End pickpocket John Wisehammer rather than that of Captain Phillip. As Liz Morden, who is about to be hanged for theft, Kathryn O’Reilly spits venom (oh, yes, a lot of spitting actually goes on!). With scowling face she positively fizzes with aggression and attitude. Victoria Gee, on the other hand, is likeable but loud and coarse as Dabby Bryant, while acting completely transforms the mouse-like Mary Brenham, as played by Jessica Tomchak.

Nathan Ives-Moiba shows the weaker side to an officer as Ralph Clark and, among the other officers, Sam Graham as Harry Brewer is a colourful character.

Our Country’s Good is an important piece of theatre. Based on true facts, it shows how people can forget their own misfortunes through acting while the rest of us can sit back and wonder at the magical powers of storytelling.

Our Country’s Good is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Nov 22.

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

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