Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker – Ramps On The Moon – New Wolsey Theatre till Saturday 7th April then touring
Wertenbaker’s play was written only 30 years ago but has become a modern classic. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel ‘The Playmaker’, it tells the story of a penal colony in Australia in 1789 at a time when both the soldiers and the inmates are facing hunger and potential anarchy, and looks at how the arts, in particular putting on a play, changes their outlook and helps them develop working relationships with each other and into better characters themselves in spite of their natures and backgrounds.
This is the third play in a series embarked on by five theatres including The New Wolsey who created the Ramps on the Moon project to build on the work done by Graeae Theatre in integrating disabled, D/deaf and able bodied actors into the theatre and at the same time make theatre more accessible to deaf and disabled audiences.
For me what marked out the first two productions in this series was the energy that exuded from the cast and gave both ‘Tommy’ and ‘The Government Inspector’ a fresh and original drive. In my view, as worthy as it is, these productions should never be about trying to get as many actors with disabilities as possible into a performance, but more about making the best production possible in a way that the audience forgets there are any differences amongst the cast.
‘Our Country’s Good’ is a much more thoughtful, serious play than the previous two– and as such needs strong leads and plenty of pace. There are multiple scene changes – the action moving from the ship that brings the prisoners into Botany Bay to the officers’ quarters , the prisoner’s huts, the beach, the prison and the rehearsal room. And the cast is a large one too– but the main protagonists have to be able to fill the roles and drive the play on as well as bring out the many layers that make up these complex characters.
Sapphire Joy is an excellent Mary Brenham – the young woman – literate, quite, born in the wrong time and place and never given a chance – chosen to play the lead in ‘The Recruiting Officer ‘, a play that many of the soldiers feel is a waste of time. Moreover it suffers constantly from lack of commitment, lack of resources and hammy delivery – problems any theatre director will empathise with! Gbemisola Ikumelo is equally good as the hard as nails Liz Morden – a fighter never given anything but knocks, condemned to hang but finally taking her chances in the play and finding a new purpose and self worth through it. Fifi Garfield is a feisty Dabby Bryant, Mary’s illiterate friend, and Caroline Parker brings some much needed humour to the role of Meg, the aging prostitute.
Unfortunately, the role of Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark– the officer who wants and succeeds in putting on the play – is woefully miscast. It’s a difficult, multilayered role which should give the sense of a buttoned down, upper class constraint coupled with suppressed sexual longing. Ralph is a fragile, lost soul who nevertheless burns with unrequited love and is torn between his duty and religious beliefs and his base desires. Tim Pritchett not only doesn’t look smart enough, he also plays him far too one dimensionally. Equally Garry Robson does his best with the role of Harry Brewer but never gets under his skin, and there is no rapport with Duckling (Emily Rose Salter) – the whore who he tries to keep as his mistress but is in fact the love of his life.
Integrating the signing into the performances worked well – especially when minor characters sitting at the front of the stage told the story in tandem with the main action – but having the roles of both Duckling and Dabby played by D/deaf actors with their words spoken by two of the other main characters just made the scenes confusing and took away some of the humour and pace.
There were some nice moments – some of the play rehearsals were genuinely funny – mostly down to the excellent skills of Will Lewis making the most of the part of earnest amateur actor Sideway. The auto projected script was clear and not intrusive, and the scene changes and staging worked well.
But this is a play about a group of people caught on a knife edge – exiled from home, dwindling supplies made worse by thieving, increasingly lost discipline, indiscriminate flogging and hangings common place – yet the cast and director Fiona Buffini failed to create that sense of urgency, fragility, desperation and unease that would have pervaded a group of ill matched, lawless and increasingly desperate souls hovering on the brink of anarchy or madness.
There was also a missed opportunity to make more of Milton Lopes as the Aboriginal whose tragedy sums up the huge human cost on all sides of this dark piece of our history.
I have seen better productions than this – but ‘Our Country’s Good’ is always a play worth seeing – and I would urge you to go both to support the work of Ramps on the Moon and to enjoy an incredible piece of writing. At a time when arts funding is at an all time low and is being increasingly cut from the school curriculum it has much to say about the transforming nature of the arts and the important place it should have in any society.