So it seems fitting that Alastair Whatley’s touring revival for the Original Theatre Company (in association with Anvil Arts) should hit the road just as George Farquhar’s comic masterpiece marks Josie Rourke’s new tenure at the Donmar Warehouse.
All the same, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play is strong enough, like an Ibsen hero, to stand alone, even if the cruel spaces of the Rose and the ho-hum design of beige drapes and dodgy lighting don’t inspire confidence.
Ten actors play all the roles of officers and convicts drawn together in the experience of making theatre, the process of transformation encompassing side issues of the dignity of prisoners, rehabilitation, inequality of the sexes, even in crime, and the different styles of 18th century acting.
It’s a rich and heady brew, utterly enthralling. The play is fully deserving of its status as a modern classic, and we’re less conscious, a quarter of a century on, of Wertenbaker’s debt to the two great books that immediately preceded it: Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, a prime source, and Robert Hughes’s majestic account of the New South Wales experiment, The Fatal Shore.
The company is led by Aden Gillet as the Governor and a fussing, Peter Quince-style participant, and Phillip Whitchurch as a blustery captain, sweaty midshipman and troubled prisoner. The doubling is part of the play, which makes fun of the convention while allowing performers like Emily Bowker’s immensely touching Brenham (cast as Farquhar’s cross-dressing Silvia) and Emma Gregory’s sullen convict to find redeeming grace in their role playing.
Notable contributions, too, from Jenny Ogilvie, Christopher Harper and Seun Shote as a painted Aboriginal ensure that the parameters of the play as a theatrical exercise are imbued with character and meaning that illuminates the human condition in these curious and barbaric circumstances.