Back in the early 1980s Max Stafford Clark, the director of Out Of Joint Theatre Co, recommended a book to his friend the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. He thought it would make a good play and evidently she agreed. The book was The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, and the good play it became was Our Country's Good.
Keneally is an interesting writer - brilliant at finding good stories, but then telling them in a messy, muddled way. They're ripe for someone else to come along and draw out the story, distilling them into something wonderful. Everyone knows his novel Schindler's Ark by the film Spielberg made of it, changing the name less than Wertenbaker did The Playmaker.Our Country's Good explores the lives of the first convicts and officers sent out to found a penal colony in Australia. The convicts are brutal, uncivilised people, and some of the officers aren't much better. The man in charge of this unruly and combatant band suggests an experiment - getting the convicts to put on a play, to see if it redeems them. A young, ambitious officer volunteers to direct.
By turns hilarious, lewd, poetic and poignant, this play is full of in-jokes - about acting, about Sydney, and full of historical detail about the real men and women on whose lives it's based. Every actor plays at least two parts, and everyone is both soldier and criminal. The language is certainly fruity but it's also mouth-rollingly mellifluous, and the 18th century thieves' cant peppers the scenes to add depth without heaviness. You can tell Wertenbaker loves words, and knows their power, by the devastating double meaning to the play's title.This staging harks back to Out Of Joint's premiere, over 25 years ago. It's a classic production, focused on bringing out the comedy (Liz Morden, played by Kathryn O'Reilly is particularly fine). This play is much studied at A-level, and I imagine this would be the ideal performance to watch, as it does everything properly. There are no striking innovations, but then it's a great enough play not to need anything new.
Jen Pawsey (DI Reviewer), 25/10/12
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