Our Country’s Good is the third production from Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of six English repertory theatres who produce a touring production of a different play each year with the goal of highlighting and creating space for Deaf and disabled talent.
Following last year’s widely successful production of The Who’s Tommy, this year the company took a risk by going in a vastly different direction. Our Country’s Good is about a colony of Royal Marines and convicts in New South Wales who decide, albeit with much tension and backlash, to put on a play called The Recruiting Officer. The piece seeks to stand as a political commentary on power dynamics within social classes, and to demonstrate the empowering properties of theatre – a fairly obvious metaphor for Ramps on the Moon’s role in the current political climate.
There are some beautiful moments in this production, due largely to the exceptional performances of the cast. In particular, Caroline Parker’s multi-roled presence as actor, BSL interpreter and voiceover for other characters is a constant delight. Her delivery is both funny and clear which provides a wonderful contrast to the heavier moments in the show.
Gbemisola Ikumelo and Sapphire Joy were both dynamic in their contrasting roles and, along with the other women in the cast, brought a much needed female presence and strength to an otherwise male dominated show. Also, Fergus Rattigan as Ketch brings a lovely humility and empathy to his performance, creating a sense of heart and calm in and amongst the multiple tensions addressed within the play.
Milton Lopes also deserves a mention for his haunting performance as The Aboriginal Australian and, more importantly for me as a blind theatre goer, for his expertly written and delivered audio description. If you are planning to go see the show, please grab a headset. Lopes’ performance creates a wonderful layer of commentary and clarity for the piece. His timing, focus and attention to detail particularly when audio describing the BSL his character performs (something I had never encountered before) is stunning. I also must mention Jon Nicholls’ sound design for the show. The music in particular created a beautiful commentary between scenes that grounded the emotions behind the story.
All of this being said, the show is not without problems that I fear come down to conservative choices by the creative team. The script itself has racist qualities, particularly with regards to the experience of Aboriginal Australians. Despite Lopes’ hard work, the script presented “The Aboriginal” as a one dimensional fetishisation of suffering that was only heightened by the staging and the questionable accuracy of the character’s costume.
Some of this is alleviated by Lopes’ audio description, but is currently missed by the majority of the hearing audience because it happens through headsets, as opposed to being integrated into the show. There are also sexist and homophobic undertones to many of the lines, which are often framed as comedic. There is a tension here as one can definitely argue for historical accuracy, because these types of jokes would have been common at the time that the piece was set. However, watching a production that supports one minoritized group (disabled people), I found these moments of punching down on women and LGBTQ+ people uncomfortable and unnecessary. These sections could have been reframed to make an interesting and important comment on allyship, or they could have been cut altogether without hugely impacting on the show.
The access built into the piece was also not functioning to its best. As said previously, Lopes’ audio description is fantastic, but was often let down by the technology. Interference in the headsets and a consistent awareness of the mic being turned off and on was a distraction, and also meant we missed sections of the description. Additionally, there were a number of methods utilised for BSL interpretation and voicing over for Deaf actors. Though the experimentation is admirable, in this instance it felt that nothing really settled which risked making busy moments in the piece confusing for the Deaf and blind audience. Along with this, often one person was voicing over or interpreting for multiple characters. In a production with a huge cast, this was difficult to follow.
Over all, despite the risk that Ramps took with Our Country’s Good, despite the political relevance of the piece in relation to modern times, and despite the obvious link between the manifesto of Ramps and the play, it feels like multiple opportunities have been missed because of conservative direction. Loyalty to classics is understandable. However, these are often pieces that are written by and for the non-disabled. Putting Deaf and disabled people in these productions inevitably will upset some of their supposedly solid foundations which is why projects like this are exciting. I wish that this production had taken more time to critique as well as celebrate this play. I do think that was the ambition, but the goal was ultimately missed.
All of this aside, Our Country’s Good is a worthwhile production to watch. As I said, the actor’s performances are wonderful, as is much of the show’s creative design. Supporting the Ramps On The Moon initiative, as well as other integrated and Deaf and disabled-led work, is vital, especially if you have yet to experience it for yourself. Work like this is not done enough, and deserves to be celebrated.
Our Country’s Good is on until 12 May 2018 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Click here for more details.