It was Max Stafford-Clarke who directed the premiere of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play at the Royal Court back in 1988 when he was then Artistic Director; here he returns to the play with his touring company, Out Of Joint, for a 25th anniversary revival.
As a play about the value of art in the community, and how theatre can be a force for good in anyone’s life, no matter who they are, its power has not been dulled by the passing of time; if anything the opposite is true. In the late 1980s it played out against a background of arts funding cuts by a Conservative government and the parallels to today’s world are all too obvious.
Set in the 1780s, Wertenbaker’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker tells the story of a group of convicts who have been sent to an Australian penal colony; en route they perform a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer (itself recently revived by the Donmar Warehouse as Josie Rourke’s inuagral production).
Stafford-Clarke’s ten-strong cast double up as both the convicts and the Royal Marine officers guarding them, and the transitions are near seamless. Dominic Thorburn is superb as the idealistic Second Lieutenant Clarke who comes up with the idea of staging a play for the convicts to perform, and is met with the defining line of the production: “So you want these vice ridden vermin to enjoy themselves?”.
The convicts are a typically ragbag collection and while some show natural acting talent, such as Laura Dos Santos’ vulnerable Mary, there are others who can’t even read their lines. There are also tensions between the players, especially the reluctant hangman Ketch, and matters are complicated by one of the cast members, Duckling, having an affair with Officer Harry Brewer (beautifully played by the veteran character actor Ian Redford).
Stafford-Clarke’s production balances the more explicitly political elements of the play with the emotional trajectories of the individual characters. While the play’s exploration of the class system and the redemptive power of art remain resonant as ever, it’s real power comes in its human touches, in Dabby’s longing for home, in Harry’s haunting guilt about the men he’s ordered to be hanged and in the blossoming relationship between Lieutenant Clarke and Mary.
The touring production is elegantly staged, Tim Shortall’s design minimal but incredibly effective, and all the elements come together beautifully for the heart-warming final scene. In a world where it seems as if we’re governed by people who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, this remains required viewing.