By Olivia Bevan
To say that the Durham University Classical Theatre’s production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker was thought provoking would be a complete understatement. Never have I seen a piece of theatre that has dealt with so many complex themes. The play is a mix of historical fact, love, brutality, debauchery, tragedy and surprisingly, a great deal of humour. Only a cast of great talent could have managed to grapple with these themes, and I was awed in the way that the cast not only managed – but mastered – the dark subject matter that permeated the play.
Regarding the cast, a nod must be given to Harry Scholes, who showed an excellent command of the stage as Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, particularly in his more tender exchanges with Mary Brenham, played exquisitely by Francesca Chaplin. Their love story, although touching, was often overshadowed by the darker elements of the storyline, such as the constant threat of violence against the prisoners at the hands of the soldiers in charge. One in particular, the dislikeable Major Robbie Ross, was played fantastically by Joe Pape, who gave a thoroughly menacing and sinister performance. Via multirole, Pape fluctuated between evil and sincerely sympathetic as the unfortunate hangman Ketch Freeman. As such, all of the actors must be praised for their ability to showcase different convincing personas via multirole.
Where the set was concerned, the prod team kept it minimal, using wooden crates and rope cleverly placed within the venue to evoke the sense of the convict carrying vessel. Added details, like the hangman’s nooses hung above the entrance further intensified the sombre atmosphere of the venue – North Road Methodist Church. Such a religious setting not only provided an ironic backdrop for the cruel brutality onstage, but the use of the churches balcony above the stage provided a refreshing use of levels that was also cleverly utilised to conceal some of the violence, which only intensified the audience’s discomfort.
There was a surprising amount of technical elements used in this piece and I’m pleased to say that all of these elements merged together beautifully to evoke the atmosphere of the camp and the time period. From the sea shanties at the beginning that played as the audience took their seats, to the music played during the interval, music was used to create a sense of time period, regarding when the play was set but also when it was written. Throughout the play, recordings of Aboriginal chants were played whilst their translation was projected onscreen, which not only added an extra level of textuality to the play, but also showed a close attention to detail. The director had clearly taken time to acknowledge both sides of history when telling this story – that of the convicts and the British military men, but also that of the Aboriginal Australians whose lands and lives were so greatly affected by these settlers.
Indeed, the idea of having facts about the fates of the characters at the end, projected on screen, had the sobering effect of reminding the audience that the events they had just seen onstage were based on the lives of real people, and that the troubling legacy of British Imperialism still has ghostly repercussions to this day. Whilst many of the audience’s ‘favourites’ survived the difficulties of the prisoners camp, we were ultimately reminded of the tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians who were killed by British settlers. Did this take the shine off of the seemingly hopeful ending? Perhaps, but I for one found it a haunting and melancholy reminder that once again drove home the harsh historical truths that the play presented so well.
Overall, director Jess Frieze must be commended for her tactful and dutiful approach to portraying the harsh and often brutal realities that affected real people as a result of British colonialism. She also respectfully captures the lighter moments of humanity and ensuring that historical fact was conveyed with authenticity. Likewise, the entire cast and crew must be praised for their dedication to the piece; their perseverance and commitment to their roles shone through in the remarkable characterisation that was displayed onstage, from convincing accent work to well thought-out physicality.
DUCT’s production of Our Country’s Good is running for another two performances on Saturday 16th June, one at 2:30pm and another at 8pm. I urge you to go and see this funny, moving and powerful piece of drama before its run ends.
Photograph: Alex Leggatt.