Our Country's Good - Review

Based on true incidents, Timberlake Wertenbaker's play is set in 1789 and looks at life in a penal colony in Botany Bay. It shows that life for the prison governor and the guarding soldiers, with its shortage of food, the hostile climate and conditions, was as punishing for them as it was for the convicts.

The play gives an insight into the structure of the class system within the prison camp and offers varying viewpoints on relationships and other issues such as religion, hanging and sex for sale as well as for love.

It depicts the conflict between the liberal Governor and some of the military officers who believe in brutal authoritarianism and harsh discipline.

Within this framework lies the real strength of the play. Wertenbaker has the prisoners rehearse a play, attempting to show that the theatre has a redemptive power. It is in these scenes that the imagination is captured and the drama is at its best. For the prisoners are more colourful than the soldiers and provided the actors with some meaty roles.

The production was a little slow at the beginning due to its scene setting nature but once under way Mark Wilson's direction gathered momentum and elicited some exciting performances from his players.

Matthew Houghton, as the officer rehearsing the play, George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, captured well the internal conflict within this puritanical man as he gradually fell for the prisoner, Mary Brenham, a gentle portrayal from Kirsty Harbron.

A contrasting relationship between an officer and a convict was the tempestuous one between Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith. Matthew Lawson had the difficult part of a man highly strung to the point of neurotic. His obsessive jealousy led to some dramatic clashes with his lover. As Smith, Lyn Fernee gave a fine performance that called for contrasting emotions – indifference, anger and grief.

Sparks also flew in the interchanges between Melody Roche, Meike Broad and Anna-Marie Hiscock as three of the convict women chosen to take part in the play.

Andy Bell's comic performance as Sideway,a convict with theatrical pretensions, was up to his usual reliable standard.

Amidst all these fine performances there was a small cameo role that almost stole the show – Janet Hewlett Davies played Meg Long, an old prostitute, and demonstrated once again what a consummate actor she is.

For me there was a downside to the production and that was the cross gender casting of the play – and issue that I am not usually happy with. Whilst I acknowledge that Mark may have had difficulty filling roles with such a large cast the idea of the Governor and soldiers being played by women did not work for me.

I was also disappointed in the staging of the scene where the officers debated the putting on of the play. It lost effect due to the intrusive background conversations distracting from the main dialogue. Surely mimed talking from the subsidiary characters would have been better.

A minor quibble would be that the women prisoners looked too clean and wholesome for the conditions that they were supposed to be under.

 Barrie Jerram
21 July 2007