Our Country's Good
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Theatre St. Thomas
A theatre company proposing to put on a play like Our Country's Good is faced with some daunting challenges. It's important to keep the production from becoming an apparently endless series of small, isolated scenes, and to avoid allowing the frequent changes of scene and character to become more focal than they should be, and thus to distract the audience from the immense power of the situation and the story the script presents. Even more, perhaps, it's important to keep the focus away from the stagecraft it will take to meet that challenge, and help the audience to feel the power of the script's attention to the human pain, and potential, involved in the near-hopeless situation of the first "convicts" transported to Australia by a British government which was only interested in taking out what it saw as the human garbage.
The premise -- drawn by Australian playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker from Thomas Keneally's book, The Playmaker -- is historically based: those first transportees actually were organized, in the midst of their insupportable privation and suffering, into a theatre company to put on George Farquhar's elegant Restoration comedy of manners, The Recruiting Officer. The multiple ironies of this weren't lost on Keneally, or Wertenbaker, or on the fine ensemble Ilkay Silk assembled for this production.
Wertenbaker's play is essentially a cascade of not-all-that-explicitly-connected scenes arising out of this historical situation. We watch the officers who accompanied the "convicts" and who become the unwilling prison guards in the abandoned outpost debating whether it make sense to encourage this collection of human trash to become actors, and we watch the hapless group of transported victims dealing with their new situation and responding with skepticism and contempt and growing engagement to the attempt to put the play on, and we hear the voices of the aborigines trying to decide whether this invasion of incomprehensible beings who might as well be from another planet isn't just another episode in the long dreamtime. It's a wonderful, uncompromising and powerful script, bringing together ideas about colonialism, prisons and punishment, and the nature and powerof theatre.
Typically, Theatre St. Thomas has specialized in finely-tuned ensemble performances, productions in which a large cast and a complex concept are brought into one seamless whole by creating a group -- players and backstage folks -- who all understand exactly what their role is and why they're where they are and doing what they're doing at every moment during the show. This production met and exceeded that standard. I've not seen a more finely-honed, tightly-organized, and coherent large production anywhere.
Some of this was due to the production values (and to the way they were subordinated to the whole show, and didn't become attention-getters in themselves). As the show moved from one scene to the next, music (much of it composed, and all arranged into a wonderfully effective "soundscape," by Mike Doherty), shaped the experience; Chris Saad's superlative lighting design brought our attention from the story to the storytellers (a blue work light grew and faded as we moved into the set changes, and the show lighting bloomed around it as we moved back to the play's action), and the tightly choreographed company swiftly, efficiently and elegantly took whatever minimal props had been used for the last scene and brought the new ones on. The set itself contributed to orchestrating the experience; three huge buff curtains as a backdrop served as definers of the space, as a screen on which to project the elegant titles, and occasionally, unrolled across the stage, as an acting surface. All of this made for seamless transitions between scenes and into new spaces. I was particularly struck by the effectiveness, on two or three occasions, of the use of projected shadows -- for instance, a grid laid across the stage while characters were in prison, as though a distant sun were struggling down through a cage.
There were wonderful actors in the show as well -- I was struck particularly by the mature competence of Robbie O'Neill as the contemptible, arrogant Major Ross, who thinks convicts actually are garbage, and by Darrell Mesheau as Captain Phillip, who nobly disagrees. Their solidity anchored the rest of the cast, but it wasn't clear it was necessary for the other fine actors -- far too many to mention, and all solid -- in the company. It's really moments that occasionally stood out. Ryan Griffiths' decent, innocent Lieutenant Clark, the director of the proposed play, being "bucked up" by Captain Phillip, moving from dejected apprehension of failure and ignominy to a new resolve to get the show on. Or Jennifer Hallihan's wonderfully hostile and supercilious Liz, insisting that Mary (Emily Bossé) do her lines first, "Because then I can do it different." Or David Kelly, as Ketch, the unwilling hangman, measuring Liz for the gallows and comforting her: "Nobody will laugh at you, Liz, you won't be shamed, I'll make sure of that." One could go on.
But the real, central strength of this show, which carries your attention and concern through three hours of challenging theatre, is the triumphant ensemble playing, which is there from the very first scene, when the actors, strewn across the hold of a ship, control the audience's gaze absolutely -- an arm moves here, a sleeper shifts uneasily there, a head comes up over there, and you know you're looking just where you should be every second. At the meetings of the officers, where suddenly two or three groups of officers are onstage and a discussion of whether it's lunatic to put a play on is going on, the stage was alive everywhere you looked, with people who were doing just what you'd do while such a discussion was going on (not waiting for their cues, but living their roles for us), and yet as the focus of the discussion shifted we always had our attention drawn to the right place. In the wonderful long scene in which six "convicts" and Lieutenant Clark rehearse and discuss "the meaning of plays," among other focused and attentive performances, Christian Robichaud, as John Arscott, who has no lines at all for the first five minutes, attended to what was going on so actively that you had almost no choice but to share his attention. Because of this coherence and unity, we're invited -- no, compelled -- to watch the convicts grow into their roles, into people with a place in a society and a confidence in their lives and an understanding of what it can mean to participate fully in this sort of "useless" (according to the intolerable Major Ross) "fandangling about with a lewdy play."
Right down to the last moment, the opening of the prisoners' triumphant production of The Recruiting Officer, there was never an instant when you thought anybody didn't know exactly what her character was doing, and why, and and how it fit into the picture the scene was painting and the story it was telling, and how, in turn that fit into the whole of the story and the experience.
There were, of course, actors who were harder to understand than others in the complicated situation of the Black Box, with the audience on three sides; there were some roles and moments that were less than perfect. But there was never a doubt for an instant, from the moment when the haunting preliminary music took us to Australia, that this was a story worth telling, and one being told by people who believed it worth telling, and thought they could affect us by telling it. The Theatre St. Thomas production of Our Country's Good was itself an enactment of one of the play's own central observations: theatre transforms.