One is supposed to tell something of a people by the character of its founders. That no-nonsense, earthy work-worship Americans are so often accused of is supposed to be the bequest of their puritan forefathers and mothers – as, no doubt, is the odd American penchant for fundamentalist Christianity. What, then, to make of the fact that the nation of Australia (Australia the fair!) is the product of a penal colony, that its founding mothers and fathers were thieves, hucksters and misers, the convicted effluvia of Olde England? How did a prosperous nation emerge from such desperate beginnings?
That is at least the tentative theme of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, which is now running at the Keble-O’Reilly, directed by Fay Lomas. Much of the acting was of an excellent quality; the set-design was admirable and there were some superb directorial flourishes. It is for these that I would recommend this play. I cannot, however, help but disliking the play itself, which is banal and really rather stupid. The play is advertised as ‘modern classic’. If it is a modern classic, it is only in the AQA sense of the term.
The play itself is set just after the First Fleet arrived on Australian soil and founded the infamous penal colony in Sydney’s Botany Bay. Overseen by the stern but magnanimous Captain Phillips (Will Yeldam), both convicts and garrison are suffering under the humid strains of life in this harsh new world; people are seeing ghosts, tensions are running high among the female convicts, there are affairs, prostitution and general misery.
Into this bleak fray comes Lieutenant Ralph Clarke (Dom Pollard), who believes that by staging a Georgian farce the convicts might become civilised, honourable and capable of founding a new nation. Running parallel to this central plotline are multiple little narrative strands: the mad, tormented Harry Brewer’s (Conor Diamond) tumultuous affair with the convict Duckling (Holly Gorne); the emerging passion between Phillips and the maidenly Mary Brenham (Alannah Jones); the rivalry between feisty Liz Morden (Lizzy Mansfield) and bubbly Dabby (Linnet Kaymer). Through this, the farce is staged successfully and we are made to witness the symbolic genesis of a new nation.
As I said, much of the acting was terrific. Of particular note was Dom Pollard, who played the awkward, charming Phillip’s with great skill — he conveyed the lieutenant’s self-belief in his project, as well as a sweetness, a vulnerable naivety which the character deserved. Linnet Kaymer brought out a buffonishness in her character that only the combination of good acting and a West Country accent can achieve. Alannah Jones conveyed the timidity of Mary Brennan excellently, and was easily (I think) the most sympathetic character in the play.
All the actors played multiple parts, some with more success than others. Whilst Theo Chevallier’s played his character Ketch — an well-meaning Irish convict — very well indeed, the believability of his second character, Major Ross, was lacking (not aided by his chilling attempt at a Scottish accent). Likewise, too, with Conor Diamond who played one character with great skill, another not so much. Worthy of mention also was the set design — built to look somewhat akin to a ship, with mast and wooden slats. It worked perfectly.
I can’t help but mention my dislike for the play itself, though. For a start, it reeks of cliché, whether it’s the Fallen Woman archetype of Mary Brennan, or the bumbling best friend that always seem to accompany female leads (in the guise of Kaymer’s character), not to mention the weary stereotype of the good-hearted soldier who falls in love with said Fallen Woman. This is the stuff of Mills and Boon pulp.
Then there are the endless vapidities that would have made a dewy-eyed 19th Whig blush till every vessel in his face burst. For instance, the play suggests that Civilisation was brought to Australia when the convicts started acting in plays. Indeed, we are told on more than one occasion, the production of a successful play is rather like the maintenance of a successful colony. If only people acted/read more! Then people would just get along better, for sure! Then all this silly nastiness would end! The text itself is so chocked full of these banal humanist platitudes that I occasionally wanted to throw up. But then again, that’s just me; others may like it (enough people seem to hail it as a modern classic). In any case, whether you like the text or not, this production is worth seeing for the quality of the acting and skill with which the whole thing is pulled off.