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Our Country's Good (National Theatre, Olivier)

Timberlake Wertenbaker's modern classic has 'never seemed less schematic, or more enjoyable'

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Panoramic red skies, abstract painterly vistas, a lone Aboriginal, a call to the wild, a promise of a New World; but this is not an Australian travel brochure. The circular tilted disc of a stage in the Olivier rises on its cylindrical drum and a posse of sweating, pleading convict migrants claw their way upwards.

It's amazing how Timberlake Wertenbaker's simple, beautifully constructed 1988 play about a colony of 18th century English convicts rehearsing a Restoration comedy in Sydney Cove, New South Wales – George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer – resonates metaphorically in different ways in each decade.

The last time I saw it, only a few years ago, it was all about Arts Council cuts and the joy of theatrical expression. It's still about the latter, but it's suddenly also all about people in transit, exchanging one grim life for a slightly better one and the idea that theatre is a revolutionary process.

And a renewal of outrage at the grotesque punishment of "morally transgressing" women – adulterers, petty criminals - in certain countries adds spice and piquancy to the fate of three women on death row for stealing and gallivanting. The red-coat officers still want the women to swing, but somehow one of them, the conflicted diarist Ralph Clark, played with a deft and touching asperity by Jason Hughes, re-directs this righteous blood lust into theatrical gold dust.

He becomes Max Stafford-Clark (the play's original director)! "The theatre leads to threatening theory" blusters Peter Forbes's crusty major Robbie Ross. And between these polarised attitudes, we have the stories of a wildly lubricious and mixed-up midshipman's (Paul Kaye) love affair with a slave convict, Duckling (Shalisha James-Davis is seen nakedly stepping into a tin bath behind a canvas scrim), and the tentative but blossoming relationship of Ralph and the Restoration comedy's cross-dressing heroine, Silvia (the extraordinary Caoilfhionn Dunne as Mary Brenham), in the artistic enterprise.

Nadia Fall's production, beautifully designed by Peter McKintosh and underpinned by the yearning, folksy music and vocalised commentary of Cerys Matthews, which seeps into the actors' articulation without hampering it, leaves room for even harsher irruptions from a fearsome Jodie McNee as the framed Scouse convict Liz Morden and Ashley McGuire's bullishly uncooperative Dabby Bryant.

Wertenbaker's play drew its power, magic and historical accuracy from two of the greatest Australian books of the last century: Thomas Kenneally's novel The Playmaker and Robert Hughes's history The Fatal Shore. What she wrote, and what now occupies the Olivier stage, both feeds off those books and transcends them. And Matthew Cottle's lovely performance as Wisehammer provides an element of Peter Quince-like fussy funniness to the theatricals.

Constructed in carefully controlled blocks of action, here made fluent in an overriding debate about what might a play achieve, whose lives might it change, Our Country's Good expands into a delightful and resonant theatrical pageant of issues around the creative instinct, national identity ("I hate England, but I think English" cries the shock-haired McNee), justice, criminal tendencies and, ultimately, the value of understanding and communication.

The play, till now, has always ended in a burst of Beethoven and an explosion of possibility. But with Fall's careful character plotting, and Matthews's perfectly judged, insidious music – vocals by Josienne Clarke, guitars, accordion and percussion by Ben Walker and Ollie King, with a touch of the didgeridoos – the play has never seemed less schematic, or more enjoyable.

Our Country's Good runs at the National Theatre, Olivier until 17 October.

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