Our Country’s Good, On Stage For The First Time In 25 Years
This is the 25th anniversary production of Our Country’s Good, playing at the Royal Alex, and directed by Max Stafford-Clark who directed the original production in London. It has aged well, it’s a play that will no doubt be successfully produced in another 25 years, and 25 years after that.
The play, by Timberlake Wertenbaker and based on Thomas Keneally‘s novel The Playmaker, is about the the first play produced in Australia. The actors who performed it were convicts who had been transported to the new penal colony.
The playbill is fascinating reading. There’s a brief history of the establishment of Australia and why Britain started transporting convicted prisoners to populate the new colony. I had always assumed that the convicts were hardened criminals. Maybe some were but in England a person could hang for the theft of goods valued at more then five shillings so it’s probably safe to say that a lot of those transported were just poor and desperate.
My friend Elaine said that it made her want to learn more about Australia and it’s history.
I found the first act slow. The characters seemed one-dimensional, almost caricatures, and I found myself longing for some character development. The soldiers were bombastic and the convicts were surly. In fairness, I’d be surly if I’d been sent 24,000 km from home because I stole five shillings.
This isn’t to say that it was completely flat. There were some funny moments and it did serve to tell some of the back story.
I always like a play within a play and the show came alive for me in the second act. Based on other shows I’ve seen rehearsals must progress in the same way everywhere. Actors want more lines, they don’t know their lines, they don’t want to be in a scene with someone they don’t like, they want to face front all the time, they’re early, they’re late, they don’t show up, and on it goes. Always emotional and often funny.
Add to this a first-time director, Ralph Clark – played by Nathan Ives-Moiba, who decides to produce the play in order to further his career by impressing the liberal thinking Governor (Simon Darwen), only one cast member who has actually seen a play — the pickpocket Robert Sideway played by David Newman — and a cast who are mostly illiterate, and it’s quite amazing that they ever managed to get the play in front of an audience.
The second act was fast-paced, funny, and touching. The humanity of the characters was much more evident than in the first act.
Most of the cast played at least two roles, a convict and a military man, and – for the most part – it was in the convict roles that they shone.
Elaine and I both thought that the stand-out performance was Kathryn O’Reilly as Liz Morden. Her transformation from angry convict to rich young lady in the play is wonderful. Along the way we witness her despair, hopelessness, bravery, and loyalty. In one scene she tells two other convicts about her life and how she ended up being transported. It’s done in such a broad vernacular that neither Elaine nor I understood a word. It was brilliant.
David Newman’s performance as David Collins and Robert Sideway is also worth noting. As Collins he plays an officer who attempts to see that the convicts are treated fairly and within the law. As Sideway he plays a pickpocket who worked the theatres in London’s West End and saw the great Garrick on stage. I loved the scene where he taught the other cast member to do Garrick’s bow. So theatrical.
My favourite line was “People who can’t pay attention shouldn’t come to the theatre.” It hit home because I had to work to pay attention during the first act. Even so, I enjoyed Our Country’s Good and think it’s a play worth seeing.
- Our Country’s Good is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) until October 26
- Performances are Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2pm
- Ticket prices range from $30 to $99 with a limited number of student tickets at $25
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.872.1212 or toll-free at 1.800.461.3333, and in person at the box office
Photo of the The Company of Our Country’s Good, courtesy of Mirvish Productions