*** CONTENT NOTE: This article and the play it discusses both contain reference to strong violence, sexual violence and rape***
Our Country's Good has some serious flaws. But I’m going to start with the positives, because many of the freshers in this play deserve some encouragement. The minimalist set worked well, and the presence of the gallows throughout the piece gave a poignant reminder of the brutal themes being addressed. Lighting design was apt, and the use of thrust staging (with the audience surrounding three sides of the stage) made us feel immersed in the action.
Strong performances came from some of the actors. James Coe portrayed the eloquent superiority of Governor Phillips as well as the nervousness of Wisehammer in a sympathetic manner. Ceri Moss’ Sideway was the comical highlight of the play; her cockney accent and mischievous charm carried many of the scenes. Credit must also go to Sophie Scott, who sustained both a Scottish and an Irish accent for her two roles, conveying domineering officer and cowering convict alike with notable skill. In fact, the whole cast dealt relatively well with the doubling of characters which the play necessitates.
However, despite these successes, the entire production was let down by an evident lack of rehearsal and some frankly bizarre directorial decisions. Perhaps it is because I know the play well, but there appeared to be a distinct lack of research into the historical context of the text and its seriousness. In many key scenes actors frequently forgot their lines, which led to awkward silences, confused expressions and wasted moments of potential theatrical intensity. Most of the (admittedly difficult to stage) whole-cast scenes were static and seemed to be under-rehearsed so that the nuances of the script were ignored. Contrastingly, in monologues and duologues, where affecting moments of emotion could have been created, the decision to have ensemble members perform abnormal choreographed sequences completely detracted from the actual action of the play. To give the actors credit, they performed these moments well, but I failed to see their relevance or contribution to the piece.
Nonetheless, the most offensively strange decision in the production has to be the use of a ‘puppet’ – or in other words painted bits of newspaper wired together to form a crude stick-man – to represent the Aboriginal Australian. I understand the difficulty of staging such a character and can only assume, considering that the other BME character in the play was completely cut out, that this was to avoid cultural appropriation by a white actor. However, I consider this alternative as infinitely more inappropriate: why not stage the character using choral speech rather than painting newspaper black and pathetically parading it around the stage, muttering random ‘Aborignal’ words which I know for a fact are not scripted?
The tackling of one of the key themes in the piece in such a way was unfortunately not an isolated event. The play is set in a convict colony and is supposed to portray accurately the hardships and brutalities of this, which include objectification of female prisoners, prostitution, rape and shocking violence. All of these were either cut out or tiptoed around in this rendition which decimates the entire power of Wertenbaker’s play. It is a shame that the talent of many involved in the piece was not able to shine through due to these restrictions. What is supposed to be an uplifting end to the play was completely cut out and re-ordered, either by forgotten lines or heavy-handed editing of the original script so that the play’s central focus on the redemptive power of theatre was hardly conveyed at all. Overall, a frustratingly disappointing night at the theatre, but with promising flashes from many.