Our Country’s Good – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Nigel Armitage, April 2018
In a magnificent co-production by Nottingham Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon, Our Country’s Good transports the audience to 1788 and the arrival from Britain of the first fleet of convict ships to the penal colony in New South Wales, Australia. Based on actual events, it is a journey that will move, appal and delight the audience in equal measure and gave me my most enjoyable and engaging theatre experience in recent years.
Life for the convicts at this ill-equipped and under resourced outpost is as brutal and degrading as the 252-day sea passage that took them there. Embarked on the same journey as the convicts are the officer marines. Although responsible for administering the floggings and hangings, the officers are as much exiles in this unknown land as the people they guard. The extent to which such a regime brutalises (as opposed to reforming) those subjected to it is at the heart of the play’s concerns.
So far, so grim. But into this harsh, inhumane environment is introduced a contrary way of thinking about people; not as wilful ‘animals’ but as rational beings. Treat people with compassion and they will themselves act compassionately. And it is art – in the form of an extraordinary play staged by the convicts and directed by one of the officers – that creates the space for this different perspective and the result is transformative for all concerned.
Governor-in-Chief of the colony Captain Arthur Phillip (an assured and prescient performance by Kieron Jecchinis) does not share the regime’s bloodthirsty appetite for the effectiveness of the noose and the whip and it is he – versed in Plato and the contemporary thought of Rousseau – who appoints the ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark to direct the convicts in the proposed theatrical endeavour. Tim Pritchett is excellent in the role of the Second Lieutenant, wonderfully conveying the character’s developing awareness of the play’s significance both for the players and for himself.
“Cracking comic scenes””
Theatre is not thought by most of the officer marines an appropriate occupation for the convicts. Embodied emphatically and odiously in the character of Major Robbie Ross (played with blood curdling relish by Colin Connor), it is a point of view that is contemptuous of the idea that individuals can be anything other than the labels like ‘criminal’ that society attaches to them. Frothing-at-the-mouth keen to demonstrate his terrifying dominance of the convicts, Ross demands of one cast member in the convicts’ play to bare his back to show the others the hideous scarring of the whiplash. It is the only language they understand, he asserts.
The cast member in question is Robert Sideway, superbly played by Alex Nowak, who brings to full fruition his character’s capability to evince the audience’s anguish in one scene and then gusts of laughter in another. Perhaps it’s not been apparent in the review so far that as well as the powerful themes already discussed, the play also contains some cracking comic scenes, chiefly at the expense of the famed vanity of actors.
All of the performances in the production illuminate the play wonderfully. Playing the convict Dabby Bryant, who dreams forlornly of returning to the green fields and hills of Devon, Fifi Garfield signs her dialogue, whilst another character speaks aloud Dabby’s words. In keeping with Ramps on the Moon’s access-for-all approach to theatre, all of the script is communicated in British Sign Language by various characters. Captioning and audio description is also integrated seamlessly into the performance. The approach creates a strong sense of language’s power and purpose, of sharing experience and of creating meaning in the process.
Our Country’s Good encapsulates a simple but profound message about the value of the arts as a tool of self-expression and personal development. In this respect, although the play is set over two hundred years ago, its message is for now and for all time. We are all included in this idea, not just because it should be our right, but because our identity depends on it. This production brilliantly captures and articulates this fundamental truth. And, for this reason, it does not offer just an ordinary night at the theatre. Rather it shows that, in fact, in the world of imagination and creativity, there can be no such thing. I cannot recommend this play highly enough.
images: Catherine Ashmore