Our Country’s Good at the National Theatre
By 1815, there were 288 crimes that had a death sentence in Britain: an interesting statistic that puts this play in perspective. This extraordinary cheapness of life led to a large number of these sentences being altered to lifelong exile in the colony of Australia. Life for the colonists and prisoners of “the first fleet” was, by all accounts, very hard, and this show does not shy away from any of that misery. This revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s seminal 1988 play about the first convict ships in Australia is an elegant and darkly humorous meditation on suffering and redemption.
It is an intense production: the cast appear to have the fragility of their characters’ lives very much on their minds, especially the prisoners who have become unlikely members of a theatrical troupe (led by Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, while a lone, bewildered Aborigine looks on). Director Nadia Fall skilfully depicts Clark’s struggle to get the play performed, understanding both the pain and compassion of the piece. To her credit, she has coaxed lovingly nuanced performances from each actor. They are uniformly excellent, particularly – it has to be said – from Jodie McNee, who imbues Liz Morden with both streetwise toughness and vulnerability. Despite the pain and suffering, darkness is tempered with light; there is a rich seam of dark humour to be found, even in the harsh realities these characters face.
Music forms an intriguingly deep part of the production, with Cerys Matthews’ haunting combination of English folk and bluegrass spirituals giving a powerful contrast between the old world and the new. It gives the simple but beautiful staging of the play a real impact, taking place as it does on a rotating circular stage that is designed to represent the continent of Australia itself – and thus only heightening the sense of isolation.
The ultimate idea that prisoners who wish to change should be allowed to do so has never been more relevant, and demonstrates just how essential theatre has been to people’s lives, particularly in prison. Evocative and powerful, but never didactic, Our Country’s Good is a phenomenal show with great design and consistently superb acting that never fails to tug at the heart strings.
Our Country’s Good is on at the National Theatre from 19th August until 17th October 2015, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch writer Timberlake Wertenbaker and director Nadia Fall talk about the show here: