Take a theatre philistine to Timberlake Wertenbaker sOur Country's Good and they will emerge an evangelist. Commissioned in 1988 by Max Stafford-Clark for the Royal Court, Our Country's Good is unabashedly about the transformative power of theatre and, while in most instances such professional introspection makes for turgid drama, here the script lends the message the most compelling - and watchable - endorsement.
The play is based on Thomas Kenneally s novel The Playmaker which is based on a real historical incident. In 1788, the first convicts arrive in the first Australian penal colony. As the settlement evolves, the enlightened governor hatches the idea of introducing some culture and commissions a production of George Farquhar s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. Few theatrical endeavours have faced such adversity - only two copies of the text, a subversive and illiterate cast, a leading lady heading for the gallows and rabid opposition from other officers. But, hey, the show must go on - and go on it does.
Director Stafford-Clark assumes the helm once again for this 10th anniversary revival, now under the auspices of his Out of Joint touring company. His intimacy with the material shines through in an evocative production. The first clue of this comes with the set, barren initially except for a small swinging platform. Raised and lowered by pulleys throughout, this central prop functions as a rowboat, a ship s hold, a table in the officer s mess and a stage within a stage. It is simple - and yet, with the lighting and superb performances, it s all that s necessary to take you to the very heart of the action.
Versatility carries through to the impeccable ensemble cast, most of whom double as captors and captives, men and women. At times, the actors portrayal of polar characters is so persuasive that you question whether the cast is not in fact twice as large as the programme indicates. Special praise must go to Jonathan Cullen (both reform-minded governor and hopeful convict Wisehammer) and Declan Donlon (a sadistic Scottish Marine and reluctant Irish hangman).
Stephen Beresford is given a break in assuming only a single role, but then, as the ambitious Lieutenant Clark who directs the convict play, he is on stage for virtually every scene. Despite this exposure, one never tires of Beresford s powerful performance which shows him struggling with his desires and insecurities before finding redemption himself through the play and his love for its convict star Mary Brenham (played by ex-ballerina Sarah Walton in a remarkable acting debut).
While Our Country's Good first and foremost silences any arguments about the irrelevance of theatre, it also offers a passionate commentary on the inhumanity of imprisonment, the brutality of man against man and the unbiased nature of love. This is theatre at its very best.
Our Country's Good continues at the Young Vic until 24 October before embarking on a national tour which takes it to Liverpool, Oxford, Leeds, Bury St Edmunds, Blackpool and Eastbourne.