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Our Country's Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker (adapted from The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally)
Factory Company, Tobacco Factory Theatres Bristol
Tobacco Factory Theatre
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Part of Tobacco Factory Theatre’s Factory Company programme this season is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. Based on Thomas Keneally’s book The Playmaker, the story follows the decision by the Governor of one of the first Australian penal colonies in the 1780s to stage a play using convicts as actors.

The idea of the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, is to use theatre as a transformative force in the convicts’ lives. Not only does he hope to distract the inhabitants from more petty crime, discontent, boredom and casual sexual liaisons, he also aims to give them the opportunity to realise their potential by allowing them to step away from their criminal history into new roles. He suggests Lieutenant Ralph Clark to undertake the production and rehearsals. Clark is at first ambivalent and takes on the role more to enhance his position with the Governor than from any genuine belief he can help the incarcerated.

Not everyone is supportive of the Governor’s ambitions. Major Ross embodies the contradictory opinions. His objections are based on the opposing view that the convicts are not capable of reform and that the threat of violence is all that keeps the convicts from threatening the fragile social order. The convicts too are sceptical at first. Most have been transported to Australia for the pettiest of crimes, have never been given a chance in society to be any different, or seen as capable of honest lives.

Wertenbaker’s theatrical adaptation ingeniously uses the same cast to take the roles of officers and criminals. As convicts, they wear grey trackies and badly fitting t-shirts; as officers, they simply pull on red tailored jackets. With just the thickness of a bit of cloth, the arbitrary difference between their lives could not be more magnified.

The play opens with the brutal flogging off-stage of one of the convicts. Performed in-the-round, a noose hangs mid-stage as we listen to the harrowing echoes as each of the 50 lashes reverberates around the theatre. The threat of violence and use of capital punishment cast a powerfully ominous reminder throughout the evening of the desperate circumstances of those transported.

As Clark gets the project underway, we are introduced to the cast made up of prostitutes, pickpockets and hardened criminals. We hear their back-stories and are reminded of the social forces, controls and brutal judicial system of the time. Understanding the causes of crime and the benefits of rehabilitation was limited to those enlightened few, embodied by Phillip. Much fun is had with the cast as they learn to act, complicated by the fact that many cannot even read and try hard to hide it.

The reformative effects of producing a theatrical work in this group transform not only the convicts but many of the ruling class as well. Mutual understanding and relationships, even between officer and inmate, develop. Towards the end, Clark loses his red jacket and the distinction between ruled and ruler becomes barely noticeable. Despite resistance from Ross, Clark and Phillips achieve their ultimate goal and the play is a huge success.

Despite the gruelling nature of their circumstances, this play is as humorous as it is harrowing. The excellent ensemble cast of nine (Sasha Frost, Kim Heron, Danann McAleer, Charleen Qwaye, Luca Thompson, Joseph Tweedale, Paksie Vernon, Dan Wheeler and Heather Williams) rise to the challenge of delivering multiple roles convincingly with nothing more than body posture and a change of jacket, hat or accent.

However, the evening does have its shortfalls. Introducing each act with a title announced by actors side stage through the PA creates an episodic feel which feels like an unnecessary interruption and doesn’t really add to the production. Added to this is the occasional voiceover reflecting the indigenous peoples' reactions to events. It is important to reflect that, while we witness the transformative effects of events on the settlers, the Aborigines were first displaced and then devastated by the diseases brought in by the new arrivals. Again, however, this is done through voiceover which feels intrusive and on some occasions the technical delivery was not clear on the night.

Joan Phillips