Our Country’s Good

Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Donna Lesley Price
The Lantern Theatre
Monday March 26th 2012

Reviewed by Sarah Ryan

Having read Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, on which this play is based and loving the intimate atmosphere you get at the Lantern Theatre, I approached this play with a sense of anticipation and trepidation. Kick Theatre had bitten off a very ambitious mouthful, by presenting such a pared down performance in a very low key and pint sized venue of such a vast novel with a complex plot and a large cast of characters.

Set in the Australia of 1789, the action revolves around the fraught and interdependent relationships of the convicts and the officers and soldiers whose duty it is to contain them on an alien island far away from home. Faced with an impending crisis due to shortage of supplies, the jailors are vainly trying to keep order either by brutal or humanitarian means. In comes Ralph, a young, inexperienced lieutenant, who is given the job of directing rehearsals of the first play ever to be staged in the country. With a liberal commander, prejudiced and bloodthirsty peers, and armed with only two copies of the play and a cast of convicts with a leading lady who’s about to be hanged, Ralph is truly up against it!

Overall the young cast pulled it off with an energetic and sensitive production which cleverly balanced drama and comedy and managed to address some of the larger themes, such as the inhumanity of a British justice system, which offered death or deportation as the only options and made no distinction between the severity of the crime or age of the offender. The cast effectively showed in some of their character portrayals, especially that of the bigoted and brutal Major Robbie Ross played by Bexy Louise, how there was little distinction between some of the criminals and their captors.

The tragic elements were generally well balanced with comedy, particularly in the portrayal of some of the more feisty convicts and their wrangling over parts and lack of comprehension of the distinction between fact and fiction, which causes the young director a lot of frustration. Bexy Louise provided a number of laughs in her expressive portrayal of the morbid yet desperate to be loved hangman, James Ketch Freeman. While Michael Quinn Ashton as Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark provided a well-balanced performance as the catalyst and counterpoint for the others. Broader comedy was presented by the enthusiastic, bordering on slapstick performance of Michael Fargher as the hapless Robert Sideway.

The staging was minimal but effective, though I think they could have developed the sound effects further to enhance the idea of a storm driven sailing ship and the alien, hostile environment they were dropped into. To their credit they did attempt to incorporate some aboriginal mysticism into the production and the renditions of some of the traditional convict songs were touching.

There were some moments, however, that didn’t quite hit the mark, as I wasn’t entirely convinced by the relationship between Duckling and her jealous captor who progressively drinks himself to death. Though a rather unsympathetic audience who at times almost derailed the performance with their inappropriate laughter didn’t help them!

I would have liked to have seen a little more physicality in some of the performances, to more vividly represent the scenes set in the bowels of the ship and the constraints and hardships that the convicts had to endure. However, for a first night I thought the cast coped well and handled challenging subject matter and a difficult audience confidently to present an enjoyable experience. As promised there were moments of real pathos, comedy and drama.

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