The Ramps on the Moon project is now in its third year, and after The Government Inspector (Birmingham Rep) and Tommy (New Wolsey Theatre), it’s Nottingham Playhouse’s turn to take the lead on the annual piece of epic integrated theatre. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s A-level Theatre Studies staple, Our Country’s Good, is a canny choice; integrated theatre with its subtitles, audio description narration and visible storytelling devices lends itself to a play that is still used to teach features of Brecht’s epic theatre to schoolchildren; and the play’s treatment of prejudice, communication and integration lend themselves well to the established political agendas of Ramps on the Moon. The play may be weathered, but Fiona Buffini’s production finds comedy and bite in the collective endeavour to put on a play against all odds.
The figure of the Aboriginal Australian jars with me as he always has; I’m not convinced that this exoticised figure, near-naked and speaking of dreams, has a place on the modern stage. Fascinatingly, though, Milton Lopes is also the audio-describer; for certain parts of the audience, it is the indigenous voice that narrates the action. While the audio description is only available to those who request it, the very idea that there is a second version of events being told through this figure is a fascinating one. The story that he observes is straightforward: an idealistic officer gathers a group of New South Wales convicts to put on The Recruiting Officer in order to prove the transformative value of theatre, against stiff opposition from other officers. But the varied communication strategies find consistently fresh relationships between the characters.
The spreading of D/deaf actors among the cast particularly affects the gender relationships. Duckling, the mistress of midshipman Harry Brewer, wields silence powerfully in Wertenbaker’s text in order to manipulate her lover/gaoler; here, Emily Rose Salter signs constantly; Harry’s voice is an attempt to keep up with her as much as to dominate her, and her gestural and facial responses to his clumsy expressions of love are by turns hilarious and moving. Similarly vocal without making sounds is Fifi Garfield as Dabby; she inserts herself forcibly into the centre of every scene, her unabashedly frank illustrations of sexual acts humiliating her quiet (but increasingly vocal) friend Mary. The casting choices to give the most loquacious and outspoken roles to D/deaf actors is particularly bold, insisting that extroverted and confident behaviours are not tied to spoken volume.
The visual noise of the stage becomes hard to navigate at times, however, particularly as much less doubling is used than usual for this play. Convicts in the foreground interpret the conversations of the officers in frantically signed commentaries on the action, an elegant decision that has the additional advantage of keeping the convicts more constantly in view. But the shape and scale come at the cost of individual characterisation, particularly in the case of quiet characters such as the lonely hangman (the excellent Fergus Rattigan) or the eloquent, unrequited lover Wisehammer (Tom Dawze), who struggle for stage space and time. The busy ensemble scenes work best, particularly as BSL interpreter Caroline Parker (doubling as Shitty Meg and giving this wonderful one-scene character extended life in the rehearsals) throws herself into the fast back-and-forth scenes that leave the well-intentioned but easily manipulated Ralph floundering between signers and speakers.
The guards are less well served than the prisoners. The important debate scene in which the colony’s officers consider the pros and cons of staging the play confines everyone to sitting in a long line, missing an opportunity to individuate the opposition more. The scenes featuring Harry, the guard haunted by memories of the men he has hanged, also feel oddly disjointed; Garry Robson plays the part with a confidence and savvy that jars with the fractured nature of his outbursts, and he behaves as if senior to his superiors. There are no bad performances, but only when Major Ross interrupts a rehearsal to torment the prisoners does the threat of opposition really feel dangerous.
The convicts, however, are magnificent. Gbemisola Ilumelo in particular is outstanding as Liz Morden, beginning as the most feared of the convicts and ready to fly off the handle, but gradually showing her vulnerability. While much of the play now feels dated, the sight of a black woman standing silent as she is judged by a group of men – silent not because she is guilty, but because she believes there is no point in speaking – feels urgent in this production, and her sudden elegant promise to Governor Philip that she will speak her lines with the dignity they deserve is a transcendent moment. It makes human one of the most important points that Ramps on the Moon keep returning to – we shouldn’t be surprised to see and hear beauty emerge from those who society often treats with disdain.
Our Country’s Good is on at the Nottingham Playhouse until 24 March 2018, and then touring. Click here for more details.