For a play that has become a classic since its premiere in 1988, Our Country’s Good has had very few productions not directed by Max Stafford-Clark for Joint Stock or, now, Out of Joint. It all makes sense really: Timberlake Wertenbaker’s script and the production style of Stafford-Clark who commissioned it seem to breathe together, a perfect fusion of text and performance.
The play is based on The Playmaker, Thomas Keneally’s brilliantly fictionalised version of events in Australia shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first Governor, gives Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark the task of staging The Recruiting Officer with a cast of convicts. This is the peg on which to hang a whole series of different insights and scenarios – dramatic, comic, violent, humane, romantic, historical – without, surprisingly, any dislocation of tone. Ultimately the play vindicates Governor Phillip’s controversial belief in the civilising power of art.
The doubling of parts becomes a positive element in this play, not a financial or logistical convenience. It’s the norm for Our Country’s Good that 10 actors play 22 parts, every actor with the exception of Lt. Clark playing at least one officer and one convict, a subtle strike for equality. When, say, 8 or 9 convicts are on stage together, closely followed by 10 officers in hastily assumed uniforms (especially when four of the male officers are played by women), the audience knows that this is a representation of reality, not a naturalistic drama. There is caricature in some passages in the officers’ meeting or in the comic appearance of Shitty Meg, the ageing madam as played by Ian Redford, yet truth speedily reasserts itself and all the major parts carry complete conviction.
In a fine ensemble performance, Dominic Thorburn provides a still centre as Lt. Clark, a self-effacing presence in the midst of turmoil, diffidence turning towards confidence with the growth of the character’s belief in what he is doing. The four women in the cast, with only one “real” part each, are all superb, with Lisa Kerr’s Duckling, all furious anger and unexpressed love, wonderfully moving in her relationship with the elderly Midshipman Harry Brewer, one of four parts played by the remarkable Ian Redford. The contrasts between the male actors’ roles are well illustrated by Matthew Needham – the civilised intellectual Captain Collins and the stage-struck pickpocket Robert Sideway – but all relish the contrasts with supreme skill.
Tim Shortall’s designs have an appropriate hint of improvisation, while Andy Smith’s sound reminds us of the Dream Time of the aborigines who will be the greatest sufferers in this great suffering.