By Harry Twining
When one considers the plot of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good – the first fleet of convicts to Australia putting on a restoration comedy beneath an unforgiving sun – they may not consider the play particularly relatable to today’s audience. However, director Jess Frieze insists otherwise. “One of the unique things about the play is that it is set in the 1780s, but was written in the 1980s. Therefore, it mostly covers themes which are completely universal and relevant today”.
Aside from the value of theatre to human redemption and restoration, the play also forms a discussion of how “criminals should be treated (and) what it means to be human”, leading on to Frieze’s argument for the production’s more novel and “stripped back” approach. “Past productions have gone for the quite elaborate” Frieze says. In contrast, the light and airy North Road Methodist Church not only works well with the play’s frequent debate (and often derision) of “Christian values and notions of justice”, but also provides the open-air feeling of an outdoor performance in Australia itself. The almost “bare” nature further leaves the actors “incredibly exposed” on stage, allowing maximum focus on their words and emotion, rather than distracting set or costumes. This further lends itself in helping the audience empathise with the characters onstage, and become immersed in a production not dissimilar in technical complexity to that which the convicts would have performed all those years ago.
In this regard, Frieze continues “We wanted to emphasise the idea that everyone is quite similar, with red neckerchiefs as the only really marker of differentiation between an officer and a convict.” This leads on to what I personally find one of the play’s most exciting aspects; the frequent use of doubling with nearly every single character. This creates fascinating occasions with an actor’s two characters despising each other, again raising the question of how different these two human beings truly are, and it perhaps being the personal recognition of these similarities from whence the hatred grows. “It blurs the lines between convicts and officers” says Olivia Swain, who plays both Duckling Smith and George Johnston. Frieze confirms that the cast have “risen to the challenge (and) done a fantastic job”, especially given the often incredibly limited time between changes, encompassing both costume, character and sometimes accent.
Another fascinating layer is added to the production by the fact that nearly every single character was a real person. In preparation, Harry Scholes (who plays Ralph Clarke, the officer who brings the ‘play within the play’ together) read many of Clarke’s real life diaries, often finding that he was not at all the sympathetic character the play makes him out to be. However, most of the cast and crew agree that they haven’t tied themselves down too strictly to historical fact. “Its about making the character believable on stage” opines Amy Howlett, giving them a depth and complexity which may not be retrievable from available historical documents. Rather, the “essence” of the character is the most important element.
The “stripped back” nature of the language further allows the actors own interpretations and “spin” on the lines. “It’s been a pleasure to see what the actors have done with that” says Producer Sophie Boddington says, with Frieze adding that their original vision of the play has been heavily moulded (for the better) by the talent of the actors. “This really sets us apart from other productions”, she says. Even in cases where the character may not have existed in history, Swain points out that “there were still people like that who did exist…in real life experiences which (the actors) can draw from. There is no character which is weirdly not a human being. Everyone is a human being.” This encapsulates what I feel is the key thrust of the play’s; everyone is human with their own complications and relationships, yet essentially the same needs, wants and fears, the play within the play acting as a form of escape where a literal escape could prove fatal.
Although featuring some truly harrowing scenes (in one of which I could feel the palpable fear and tension emanating from the actors), Our Country’s Good will make you “laugh, cry and think”, and shall certainly provide a display of stellar acting from an intriguing cast. I for one am booking a ticket, and wholeheartedly suggest you do the same.
Durham University Classical Theatre’s production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker will be performed on the 15th and 16th of June at 8pm at North Road Methodist Church, with a matinee showing on the 16th at 2:30pm.
Tickets are available HERE.