Premiered in 1988, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about the colonisation of Australia and the prisoners the British dragged there kicking and screaming, is one of Michael Billington’s ‘101 Greatest Plays’ (just saying). But it’s a classic for a reason, drawing on themes that were as relevant in 1789 as they were in 1988, and as they are now. Elitism and how it manifests: either as power and the eventual vile and violent corruption of that power. Or those on the other end of the social spectrum whose life is dictated to be miserable due entirely to how and when they were born. You don’t have to work too hard to contemporise those themes; to satirise those themes and make them relevant.
We don’t have to look far to see how Wertenbaker’s depiction of the desperation and unfathomable suffering of her prisoners applies to those suffering right now because of how and where they were born. Wertenbaker’s text gifts the prisoners’ redemption through art, as they discover themselves in the process of rehearsing a play (Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, another of Billington’s 101). They are bettered in the process of putting on a play, within the play that we are all watching. Suggesting that we too can be redeemed and have our eyes opened a bit by just sitting, absorbing and thinking.
Trouble is, this production of Our Country’s Good, directed by Nadia Fall, didn’t make me think all that much. It didn’t make me feel all that much. It’s a good production. It’s a safe and polished production, a solid production in every aspect. Fall has almost every sense covered: visually, the set is epic; the Olivier’s drum stage is rotated and transitioned into scenes, rooms and objects seamlessly. Most strikingly, the production opens with the drum elevated as the prisoners, below, clamber up for oxygen and a small chunk of freedom from the place where they have been crammed for eight months. Above, they are trampled on by the soldiers, discussing aesthetics on the upper deck. The stage is hard wood and is contrasted beautifully by the cyclorama surrounding it, of a softly painted sunset over the desolate and distant Australian desert. Cerys Matthews’ score has a character of its own. Omnipresent folk, that haunted the production and became a part of it as much as any cast member.
The performances themselves, are all strong in a spare kind of way, but Jodie McNee’s Liz Morden is bone-shakingly good. Her characterisation so spot on that I could almost smell it. McNee delivers a speech that holds the audience rapt, triggering goose bumps. The other subject of empathy comes from Paul Kaye’s Midshipman Harry Brewer, who plays out the secondary theme of conscience. Slowly, with ultimate control, he unravels before us: guilt driving him to madness, which then drives him to death.
The National’s production of Our Country’s Good has all the bells and all the whistles. It is so polished that it shines. But it also feels remote. It doesn’t make the heart pound,it doesn’t contain much in the way of jeopardy or provocation. Which feels remiss for such a big ship flying its flags at our national theatre.