“The sea cracks against the ship. Fear whispers, screams, falls silent, hushed. Spewed from [their] country, forgotten, bound to the dark edge of the earth… Alone, frightened, nameless in this stinking hole of hell”.
It’s 1787, and a group of British convicts huddle together in the hold of a ship bound for Australia. Once there, with no guarantee of survival and against all odds, the convicts – led by 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark – are inspired to put on a production of George Farquhar‘s restoration comedy ‘The Recruiting Officer‘. This extraordinary true story forms the basis for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s modern classic, ‘Our Country’s Good‘.
30 years after it’s premier at the Royal Court Theatre, Wertenbaker’s play returns in this touring Ramps on the Moon production, co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse, and directed by Fiona Buffini. An uplifting production incorporating audio description, signing and captions, the play primarily focuses on justice, humanity and, most importantly, the redemptive power of theatre.
The production’s talented cast are fully engaging, their performances perfectly capturing the nature of Wertenbaker’s characters, with all the emotion and humour present in her play. What’s more, many of the actors double up to play more than one character, seamlessly flitting between officer and convict, the presence of a military jacket the only difference between these two groups of people separated by class.
Tim Pritchett‘s Ralph Clark, a lower-ranking officer striving for promotion, jumps at the chance to stage a play, convinced of the merits of theatre. Despite opposition, most notably in the form of Colin Connor‘s villainous Robbie Ross, Clark gathers together a group of willing convicts, and together they join forces to produce what will become the first play to be staged in Australia, highlighting the ability of theatre to unite people, regardless of background. Respectful of the convicts, and praising of their abilities, he soon forms a romantic attachment with Sapphire Joy‘s Mary Brenham, a shy convict encouraged to take part in the play by her friend Dabby. Emboldened by the strong female character she is to play in ‘The Recruiting Officer’, Brenham blossoms as the play progresses, with Joy skilfully portraying the development of the character.
Fifi Garfield shines as convict Dabby Bryant. Garfield communicates her lines via sign language and, whilst other characters do speak her lines as she signs, her movement and expression results in story-telling that is so vivid, it is clear that speech is not always necessary; movement alone is so powerful, it often relates what words cannot, much like with dance. Alex Nowak (over-the-top convict Robert Sideway/Reverend Johnson) and Will Lewis (convict John Arscott/Captain Watkins Tench) also sign their parts, in addition to speaking their lines, their transition between their two roles very skilfully executed. Their theatrical signing perfectly complements their speech, enhancing the power of Wertenbaker’s language. Several scenes are punctuated by the presence of an aboriginal Australian, portrayed here by Milton Lopes. Initially showing a curiosity in the face of these newcomers, he soon gives way to fear, hinting at the idea of colonialism. Wearing only a loincloth, focus on his graceful, dignified movement is also emphasised.
When it comes to set, designer Neil Murray has done a wonderful job of recreating an indigenous landscape, the stage reflecting the wonder of this unfamiliar land, a place in which “no one has more of a right than anyone else to call [himself] a foreigner”. The stage transitions between ship’s hold, lake, tent and rehearsal space seamlessly, Jon Nicholls’ sound – waves splashing, birds calling, and rhythmic music – adding to this fully-rounded atmosphere. Mark Jonathan‘s lighting, when not giving the impression of sand or water upon the stage floor, is projected onto a white background to reflect the most beautiful sunsets, or the starry night sky, complete with a large moon. At times, we are plunged into semi-darkness, echoing the feelings of futility that sometimes overwhelms the prisoners. However the light (often a symbol of life) that then emerges gives the impression of hope. “Whilst there is life there is hope”. Theatre is life, and therefore provides these characters with hope, just when all seems lost.
The production places a heavy emphasis on inclusivity, and therefore incorporates audio description, signing and captions (which are located on screens either side of the performance space) into the play. A far cry from being a mere afterthought, such measures have been so neatly woven into the very essence of this production, one might not even notice they are there – so perfectly do they work alongside speech. Rather than detract from the play’s issues, these forms of communication serve to enhance and strengthen the power of Wertenbaker’s language, whilst making a powerful statement regarding the need for inclusivity in theatre. Theatre really is for everybody, and this inspiring group of actors prove that the only limits to a person’s ability is their own imagination. Disability does not have to be a chain that binds a person. Anything is possible in theatre, and it becomes a place, free from marginalisation, where people can forget the “circumstances into which they are born”, and find mutual joy in this art form.
During the production, Dabby asks, “Why can’t we do a play about now?”. The response? “It doesn’t matter when a play is set. It’s better if it’s set in the past, it’s clearer”. This production certainly shows this to be true. Despite being set in the past, the play’s burning issues remain acutely relevant. Whilst it’s true that many things change with the passage of time, it’s also true that certain things do not, such as the need for law and for justice, the existence of the innocent and the guilty, and the basic principles of humanity. Sometimes, by looking back at our history, we can better understand today, and move forwards accordingly. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that theatre touches the hearts of people today just as it did with convicts and officers alike in this little colony in 1787, the power of fine language and of sentiment undeniable.
This powerful production stresses the necessity of theatre. An essential part of society, theatre is very much alive today, owing its existence to people like those characterised in the play that, despite their circumstances (even in the face of their impending hanging), strove to find joy and escape. It exposes the beauty of theatre as an art form, exploring its ability to inform and to educate, to inspire and to challenge, to unlock imagination and to encourage free thinking, to ask questions and to provide answers, to break conventions, to redeem and, cliched though it may seem, to change lives. A humanising force, theatre helps individuals transcend the darkness and the brutality, and to remember their better nature. It encourages audiences to break free of the bonds of everyday life that bind us, and to collectively find joy in the theatre.
Showcasing the vast potential for inclusivity and for equality in the theatre of today, this is a production that reflects “life as we know it”. ‘Our Country’s Good’ suggests that, not only can theatre “change the nature of [a] little society” but, one day, if we’re very lucky, it might just “change the shape of the universe”.