Timberlake Wertenbaker's Olivier Award-winning 1988 play was commissioned by Stafford-Clark to complement a revival of The Recruiting Officer, and depicts true events (it's based on Thomas Keneally’s best selling novel The Playmaker).
Set in Australia in 1789, it tells the story of a young lieutenant who is given the task of directing a cast of dispirited transported murderers and thieves in George Farquhar’s 1706 play. But with growing suspicion from his fellow officers, just two copies of the script, his leading lady facing the gallows, and an uncontrollable passion for one of his convict players, Ralph’s – and Australia’s – first theatre production is in trouble from the start.
Stafford-Clark's swift production, simply played on a raised wooden platform with ropes, pulleys and beautifully dyed swags (neat work by designer Tim Shortall), soon creates an interactive ensemble out of thieves and officers doubling roles, endemic to the whole exercise, enriches your character, as proven by John Hollingworth as both the first Governor General, Captain Arthur Phillip, and the Jewish criminal Wisehammer who's swallowed a dictionary, and by Ian Redford as a blustery old captain, sweating midshipman and haunted prisoner. The play is simple yet many-layered and resonant, historical and modern, gritty and theatrical, didactic and emotionally engaging. At times it seems as though written in blocks, but the blocks begin to merge. It's simply one of the best plays of the past 50 years, ending in a yelp of delight and a volley of Beethoven.
...Max Stafford-Clark, its original director, has mounted this glowingly persuasive and beautifully cast revival in a new era of swingeing, lamentably short-sighted cuts, Wertenbaker's play is unashamedly idealistic but it's not sentimental... The uphill battle is often very funny. Pointed doubling, executed with tremendous vigour here, is built into the nature of the play, with the same actors portraying both the oppressors and the oppressed. It emphasises how many of these unfortunates, dumped on the other side of the world for petty crimes, were paying the price for being assigned the wrong costume (so to speak) at birth and how a theatrical production can offer a microcosmic image of liberating self-transcendence and true community. Warmly recommended.
…Seeing the play again, I noticed the odd flaw in this iconic text. It seems odd for Wertenbaker to relish the historical reality of the thieves' argot… and at the same time allow the enlightened officer, Ralph Clark, to be dubbed the play-within-a-play's "director"... Otherwise, Wertenbaker scarcely puts a foot wrong... Max Stafford-Clark, revisiting the play, offers infinitely more than a carbon copy of his original Royal Court production. John Hollingworth is outstanding as both the colony's progressive governor and a word-drunk snuff-stealer; Kathryn O'Reilly is hugely impressive as the flinty thief who ultimately saves her neck by discovering her voice; and Dominic Thorburn lends the second lieutenant, who supervises the Farquhar play, the right priggish stiffness. A quarter of a century on, it's a play that still leaves its audience, like its subjects, transported.
…the play is bursting with humanity, humour, heartache and passion and Stafford-Clark’s vivid and absorbing revival of one of his greatest hits finds all the drama’s strengths… Our Country’s Good isn’t always easy to follow… But the power of the story, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, constantly grips, and almost all the performance have dramatic bite and depth. Kathryn O'Reilly gives a brilliantly sparky and furious performance… John Hollingworth is excellent as both the Governor and a bookish Jewish prisoner, while Laura Dos Santos is deeply touching… Happily the burly, rumpled Ian Redford shines in no fewer than four separate roles in this moving celebration of the power of drama to change lives for the good.
Laura Dos Santos is sweet, if perhaps a little dull, as Mary Brenham. Dominic Thorburn is the young officer who directs the show and falls for Mary. If these two have a surfeit of sickly innocence, Kathryn O'Reilly and Helen Bradbury serve up some redeeming grit with their two rough-house women. Lisa Kerr gives us one of her gamine turns as a girl called Duckling. Amid much doubling-up of the good cast, John Hollingworth and Ian Redford catch the eye. When the convicts finally put on their production after five months of rehearsal, I defy you not to cheer them to success and freedom. Encore!