AUSTRALIAN author Thomas Keneally, from whose novel The Playmaker Timberlake Wertenbaker created this play, is a master at using historical facts and people as the basis for a fictional work without loosing the honesty of those facts and people. The best known example of this is his Booker prize winning novel Schindler’s Ark, later to win an Academy Award for best picture as Schindler’s List.
Whether Captain Arthur Phillip, the former sea Captain brought out of retirement to become the first Governor of Australia’s first penal Colony in New South Wales was as enlightened as Timberlake Wertenbaker makes him in this play, seeing an opportunity to start the creation of a new society in this new land via the production of a play using the talents of some of the convicts, can never be proved one way or the other. The premise that the ancient Greeks were right in thinking that theatre can help to shape morals and ethics, which Captain Phillip believes, makes for a fascinating insight into the way that the first theatrical production in Australia George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer effected those in power and the convicts who acted in it.
Director Anna Girvan sees enormous parallels between the authority in this new country on the other side of the world from their power-base in London, and the convict population they rule, with the play they are attempting to present, The Recruiting Officer and present day society. She says she would like audiences to leave the theatre with a desire to change our leaders’ perceptions of the role of theatre in society.
In her zeal to get this message across, she sometimes looses sight of the wonderfully-drawn characters and their own complex personal problems, leaving some of them not fully drawn. With all ten of the cast playing everyone (with the exception of Joseph Tweedale’s sensitively-portrayed Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark,) playing at least two characters each and sometimes having to change characters in a moment, aided only by a slight change of costume, the audience has to be as concentrated as the actors so they do not loose the threads of the plot.
The battle, which twists and turns between between the bigoted, brutal views of Dan Wheeler’s expertly blinkered professional soldier Major Robbie Ross, and Luca Thompson, quietly juggling his options as Captain Phillip, the more liberal minded Governor and the ambitious, if diffident Lt Clark, desperately trying to involve the convicts in his production of The Recruiting Officer stay clearly in focus.
Some splendidly individual portraits also emerged, among the convicts – Danann McAleer’s Henry Irving style Robert Sideway, Kim Heron determinedly reticent as the hard-edged criminal Liz Morden, Heather Williams’ Dabby Bryant forever yearning for her native Devon behind a gruff exterior, a beautifully underplayed Mary Brenham, the plays leading lady from Paksie Vernon, and a troubled Duckling Smith from Sasha Frost.
Not all their personal relationships were as well developed as the sensitive love affair between Lt Clark and Mary Brenham, which finally ignored the barriers of class and social position. The decision to ignore gender in Midshipman Brewer left Charleen Qwaye unfairly to do battle on an extra side as well as playing the complex character of the lowest in rank member of the establishment, desperately fighting illness and coping with alien romantic feelings for the often belligerent Duckling Smith. Thanks to the fully supportive playing of Sasha Frost as Duckling, Charleen manged to win most of those battles.
One unforgivable fault which was spread amongst most of the cast was the use of off stage mics in order to introduce a change of direction in the story, many of which were often unintelligible to most of the audience.
For all of that this is a fascinating play performed and presented by a fully committed company.
Our Country’s Good runs at the Tobacco Factory until 11th May.