Our Country’s Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker

Original Theatre Company

Rose Theatre

From 30 January 2012 to 31 January 2012

Review by Louise Lewis

Twenty-two scenes and twenty-two characters, but only ten actors with steel and grit alternating between convicts and soldiers. Alastair Whatley's direction of Our Country's Good transports us into a world where we can believe in the coarseness and brutality of both criminals and military men. Victoria Spearing's beautiful yet simple drift wood set, combined with fantastic acting and bright lights, means you can feel the Australian heat onstage, despite the too-cold Rose Theatre.

Our Country's Good brings us a play within a play. Set in the first convict colony on Botany Bay, Governor Philip decides that these convicts need more than training with the whip. He believes that if these criminals can ever become part of society again, they need to be exposed to civilization and "the theatre is an expression of civilization".

Throughout the play, this is a central theme, and the effect of theatre as a rehabilitation tool is still being debated today. Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Christopher Harper) elects himself as a willing director, wishing to curry favour with the governor, and introduces the convicts to the Recruiting Officer. Despite Major Robbie's derision of the project and his attempts at sabotage, the convicts display a unity in a previously fractious group.

Whatley's production opens with the strains of a folk melody, singing of England's shores. Sound plays a large part in Whatley's vision: a soundscape of cockatoos and water accompanies the majority of the story, with more unnatural sounds for the blackout scene changes. This helps keep the action alive and immerse us in this foreign land.

It is refreshing to see a cast without a weak link, and their portrayal of all the characters is credible and well judged. A particular highlight is the truly terrifying Emma Gregory when playing roughest of the whores Liz Morden. Adam Best also shines as the endearing, mild-mannered and quick-speaking Ketch Freeman and as a vile Major Robbie Ross with a heart of stone.

What could be more relevant than a play that aims to prove the value of the arts at a time when securing funding and support is scarce? Unlike the play's 1788 context, modern society widely accepts that there are numerous benefits to be had in theatre. Despite this acknowledgement, theatre organisations are faced with an impossible task: calculating the value of theatre in order to  justify it as more than a mere luxury. Wertenbaker also took on this challenge, in 1988 claiming her aim was to show "how theatre can be a humanising force".

It is a pleasure to have this idea hammered home by such a gripping cast under Alastair Whatley's strong direction. In Our Country's Good, the Governor in Chief states that for a few hours of the colony camp play, "We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little'. The Original Theatre Company's performance will do just that.