BOLTON Octagon opens its new season with the modern classic Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. This is a co-production with the nationally acclaimed Out of Joint company whose director, Max Stafford-Clark returns to the play after directing its first showing twenty four years ago at the Royal Court, Our Country’s Good will follow its short Bolton run with a national tour.
The set is simple and spare but effective and the lighting transports you easily to the unfamiliar heat of Australia.
In the 1780s a penal colony was established in Australia, with convicted being sent there for crimes that today might not even carry a custodial sentence. Our Country’s Good tells a story of a production of George Farquar’s Restoration Comedy, ‘The Recruiting Officer’ directed by the military jailers, with a cast of criminals.
Captain Arthur Phillip, called out of retirement to run the colony, believes that convicts can be reformed and returned to society; it is their life experiences which have made them what they are. Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, desperate to prove himself and earn promotion, picks up on the idea of a convict-performed play as a vehicle for advancing his own career and offers to direct.
With only two copies of Farquar’s play and illiterates among the cast he faces a demanding task, made more difficult by the opposition of those who believe that criminals are born that way and irredeemable and the threat that some of his cast might hang from the gallows before the first performance.
We’re used now to seeing TV reality shows of opera in prisons and Shakespeare on troubled housing estates. However the redemptive potential of theatre isn’t a new idea. The tale is based on truth and real characters.
A faultless cast of ten actors plays multiple roles.
Ian Redford, familiar to local audiences from two years as Craig’s granddad in Corrie and recent roles at the Royal Exchange, is mesmerising as Harry Brewer, the midshipman terrorised by his role as a hangman. He also convinces as convict John Arscott, distressed as the impossibility of escape dawns on him he eventually finds escape through his transformation into role.
John Hollingworth engages as the liberal-minded Captain Arthur Phillip, and paints a complex picture of word-loving and word-expert John Wisehammer, feeling himself an outsider as a Jew but finding acceptance with the cast as he engages his word-skills to support fellow convicts.
Cairan Owens is superb in his two roles, the acerbic Major Robbie Ross, a cruel opponent of the drama scheme, and the real outcast Ketch Freeman rejected by fellow prisoners for his role as hangman.
Helen Bradbury, as Dabby Bryant, Kathryn O’Reilly, as Liz Morden, and Laura Dos Santos, as Mary Brenham give convincing portrayals of women harshened by their early life experiences and softened as the process of working together and acting a different role allows them to start to change.
This is a clever play, deserving of its status as a modern classic and its role as a staple for student study. These’s a great range of characters with different stories to tell, and the central story builds its strength through the way the playwright builds a common tale of transformation through the common experience of diverse characters.
Direction and casting have worked to ensure clear yet well-paced story-telling, not always an easy task with ten actors playing over twenty roles. The set is simple and spare but effective and the lighting transports you easily to the unfamiliar heat of Australia.
In some ways the play has an easy message, telling of the power of drama to change the way people see themselves, and ultimately to change their actions. In a theatre setting it conveys this message to the already converted, a theatre audience. There’s still room for other arguments, for a deeper analysis of what might make that work for individuals and for societies. However with a production of this class it would take a real cynic to argue that the point doesn’t deserve some consideration.
Our Country’s Good is at Bolton Octagon until 22 Sep 2012. It then tours, finishing with a run at the new St James Theatre in London until 9 March.
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