Our Country's Good is a co-production by Octagon Theatre Bolton and Out of Joint. It's presented by Karl Sydow in London and audiences in the north west are currently in for a treat, whilst it's playing in Bolton.
Captain Phillips (a thoughtful John Hollingworth), Governor of New South Wales, is horrified that one of the first actions in the new Australian colony is to build a gallows. In an effort to ingratiate himself with his liberal superior ambitious Lieutenant Clark (Dominic Thorburn) suggests that staging a play might raise the aspirations of the convicts. This is easier said than done as Clark faces opposition from the authorities, non-cooperation from his cast and an actor who is to be hanged.
Our Country’s Good is preceded by its reputation. Most audiences will know in advance that the theme is the redemptive power of theatre. Thankfully, the new production at the Bolton Octagon warmly demonstrates, rather than dryly describes, this quality.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s script seamlessly merges exposition with deeply moving and lyrical dialogue (including some almost impenetrable thieves’ cant) and some of the best theatrical in-jokes since The Producers. Max Stafford -Clark offers a master class of direction. Every technique about which audiences might have heard is on display. The cast form a tableau, speak in chorus, address the audience direct and switch characters without causing confusion. But the effect is to illustrate the scope of theatre rather than just to show off or dazzle. All of the techniques employed are in the service of telling the story in as clear and exciting a way as possible.
So successfully do the cast absorb themselves into the wide range of characters it is a surprise, at curtain call, to see that there are only ten members. All of them rise to the considerable challenges of the script. Matthew Needham is a wonderful, but vulnerable, prototype luvvie. Ian Redford carries the guilt of Harry Brewer’s actions in a heartbreaking fashion and brings a hilarious old buffer quality to Captain Campbell.
The theme of the play is best demonstrated through Lieutenant Clark and his reluctant lead actor Mary Brenham (Laura Dos Santos). Thorburn credibly develops Clark from an emotionally guarded officer motivated by ambition into someone so convinced of the value of his work that he is willing to challenge the presumptions not only of others but also himself. Dos Santos enters every inch the brutalised prisoner defensively hunched and hiding behind her hair. Gradually she shows how adopting a role other than that assigned to her by society allows Mary’s self-confidence to grow and her humanity to blossom.
It is deeply ironic that this production of Our Country’s Good has been developed because, in the face of austerity funding cuts, The Out of Joint Company needed to fulfil audience quotas. But the success of the production in proving the value of theatre is so successful that it is hard to regret the decision to revive the play.