Amy Price talks to the cast and crew of the upcoming production of ‘Our Country’s Good’.
First and foremost, why Our Country’s Good?
Leying Lee (Director): Our Country’s Good is my drama teacher’s favourite play from school. As with anything, I think, when your teachers love something and they were a great teacher they pass that passion on to you. I studied it for A-Level as well which made me want to do it even more, getting into the nitty-gritty of it. It’s such a shame sometimes how people say that studying things ruins it for them, but for me studying Our Country’s Good made me want to do it even more.
Obviously, as you’ve already drawn attention to, lots of people will recognise this as an school set text; how are you moving it ‘beyond the syllabus’?
Sorrel Brown (Liz Morden/Lt. Will Dawes): It’s interesting because there’s a few of us in the cast, myself included, that have studied this play at A-Level and came into it with an idea of how it “should” be done.
LF: And then you have some people coming at it blind.
SB: Even from my own study of the play, I’ve kept my script with all my annotations in it, but half the stuff that Leying’s done with it is completely different. We’ve got school kids coming to watch it and it’ll be very interesting to see whether our interpretation would match with theirs. And I think it’s really important for these kids to see a production of it because it will give them so many more ideas.
But I think we can all be proud coming of out it, saying that this is our own interpretation, this is an independent production from the A-Level syllabus and that we’ve put as much of own twist on it as possible.
LL: In the rehearsal process I found it really useful to have both types of people in the cast, in the sense that I had people who’d done the play before and people who hadn’t. And actually, I found it useful having studied it before. I didn’t feel like it was restrictive at all. I was a bit worried when I first started that I’d default to the production I’d seen when I was 12, or the way I’d written about it at A-Levels, but I didn’t.
Wertenbaker is known for having some very sinister undertones to her work, which isn’t always clear on first reading: do you feel that’s the case with Our Country’s Good? If so, what are you doing to draw it out?
SB: I think there’s definitely a darker side to the play. The audience really gets a feel for the brutality and violent environment that the convicts are having to deal with day after day. It’s literally corporal punishment on a daily basis, which is evident during bits of the play. But I think what Wertenbaker wants to focus on, and quite rightly so, is that despite all that you can find dignity in the theatre, which is exactly what happens to these convicts. And it’s a really powerful, I think, commentary on generally the way that the arts can drag people out of these absolutely dire situations and give them their life back.
Lydia Feerick (Dabby Bryant/Cpt. Watkin Tench): It’s also sinister in terms of how sinister people can be. Especially if you’re given power, I guess the sinister themes come out. If you put people in situations where – and there have been psychological experiments about this – they have power over other people, there will be a struggle between them.
SB: It’s a very interesting case study on human nature.
Are you doubling up roles, as is suggested to be a viable method of performing the show, or are you sharing out the twenty-two roles? Why?
LL: Yes, we are doubling up the roles not just because that’s what Max Stafford-Clark did when he did the first production, but because I love the contrast that you get with someone playing the lowest of convicts and then switching to a powerful officer. There are some scenes where people are playing convicts leave the scene halfway through, come back as officers. I have a minimalist, kind of Brechtian vision for the show. We’re swapping characters, yes, but we’re also swapping them on stage. We’re not running back and forth changing costumes. We’re literally having people putting jackets on stage, taking shoes off on stage.
SB: It’s quite interesting as an actor as well because it’s nice that we all get to actually experience the idea of circumstance being the defining factor. Because we’re playing both, it’s been quite interesting that at the time, depending on where we were born, we could have been either officer or convict.
Zoe Coxon (Cpt. David Collins/John Arscott/Shitty Meg): It makes the play funny as well, like in the parts where they’re talking about the audience being discerning. It just adds that comedy factor because they’ve just seen us do it – hopefully convincingly.
To what extent does the play emphasize how ‘theatre can be a humanizing force’?
LF: I was doing some reading today and there are letters between some prisoners in a modern day prison that had been in contact with the playwright about this play, and about the fact that they were putting on some plays in their prison.
SB: I think they performed this [Our Country’s Good].
LF: A passage from a letter that really stood out to me is where he said “prison is about failure, normally, and being reminded of it pretty much every day” when you’re imprisoned. And you can see that all the character of Ross does is make the convicts think there’s nothing they can do to make up for their sins and redeem themselves and that they’re the lowest of the low. What this person was saying in their letter was that theatre is the exact opposite of that: theatre is escapism. Theatre is basically a way a out of being told that because of one thing you did you are no longer good enough, you are no longer human. Theatre has a way of reserving that and has reversed that for not only the characters in this play but also people who do theatre in prisons even. The theatre will always believe in you when no one else does.
What relevance has it got for a Durham Student?
LF: In chains. Too much work.
SB: In the play it’s more an issue of authority rather than class divide or anything – but I think in some areas of the student body in Durham there can be quite an elitist attitude. Obviously this is a minority, but I think that this play does show very, very important lessons about the fact that circumstance is often the defining factor and that people who are born into very privileged circumstances are biologically as able as people who are born into lower circumstances, through no fault of their own. There’s a great line which talks about a slave boy being taught Plato.
Have you had a significant challenges with the show?
Tristan Robinson (Midshipman Harry Brewer/Robert Sideway): Oh yeah, definitely. Harry is a very challenging character. He is a very, very troubled man and it was hard to get in the mindset of both an older person and of a mentally ill person. It was trying to get the right balance for him which was very difficult, and also the idea of having been set back all your life and being put on a shelf as a person. That’s a very hard thing to embody as an actor.
LL: I think it’s the fact that he knows it as well that really gets me. There’s a line where he says “I know they look on me”.
SB: And the mentally ill thing is not something you can explain or show somebody straight away. I imagine that’s quite hard.
TR: And to encapsulate multiple personalities is a very difficult thing to do because it’s obviously got to retain Harry, but also contain a completely different entity.
Due to the number of characters, the play can be a little challenging to follow – what are you doing to combat this?
LL: We cast absolutely flipping incredible actors. It’s true. The best way to combat this is to have a cast that can so fully encapsulate whichever character they are playing. The best way isn’t to put a new hat on and put a new jacket on. It’s to become a different person from scene to scene.
Sell the show to me in a sentence.
NC: A must-see for any S&M enthusiasts
TR: I take my shirt off.
SB: A showcase of the positive influence of theatre on humanity.
LF: I’ve got a funny accent.
LL & ZC: “We may laugh, we may be moved. We may even think a little.”
Image: Alissa Cooper & Penny Babakhani