Our Country's Good

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence reviews the revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play Our Country's Good at the National Theatre.

Our Country's Good

The redemptive power of art is celebrated in Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play Our Country's Good, which is revived for the second time in two years in an expansive new production, directed by Nadia Fall, at the National's Oliver auditorium.

Observed by a lone mystified Aboriginal Australian, the first convict ship arrives in Botany Bay, 1788, crammed with England's outcasts Colony discipline in this vast and alien land is brutal. three proposed public hangings incite an argument: how best to keep the criminals in line, the noose or a more civilised form of entertainment?

The ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark steps forward with a play - George Farquhar's comedy The Recruiting Officer. But as the mostly illiterate cast rehearses and a sense of common purpose begins to take hold, the young officer's own transformation is as marked and poignant as that of his prisoners.

This production opens in gripping fashion with the circular tilted disc of a stage rising on its cylindrical drum and a ragtag bunch of brutalised homesick, heartsick convict migrants clawing their way upwards. indeed there is nothing to match this powerful scene in the rest of the play which does lose momentum at times - it would have benefitted from tighter pacing - but manages to totally engage us in the narrative and the plight of the characters, while the earthy, scabrous humour acts as a welcome distraction from the grim reality of the situation.

The atmospheric backdrop conjures up swathes of incandescent desert and a wide wash of sky, so you can almost feel the glaring heat, while the plangent score by Cerys Matthews (her first for the National) perfectly maps out the play's shifting of time and place and is seamlessly integrated onto the drama.

Director Nadia Fall elicits an impressive array of performances from the ensemble cast, most notably Jason Hughes who brings a mixture of humanity and determination to the role of Ralph Clark, Caoilfhionn Dunne as the intelligent, cross-dressing heroine Mary Brenham, Jodie McNee as the fearsome unjustly framed Scouse convict Liz Morden, Paul Kaye as the mixed-up midshipman Harry Brewer, Shalisha James-Davis as the slave convict, Duckling Smith, with whom he falls in love and saves from the gallows, and Ashley McGuire as the bullishly uncooperative Dabby Bryant.

in short then this is a profoundly humane piece of theatre, steeped in suffering, yet charged with hope

Our Country's Good
Runs in repertory until 17 October 2015
Box office: 020 7452 3000

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