THEATRE REVIEW: Our Country’s Good

Out of Joint

Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
 
16 Oct 2012
(Touring Sept-Nov 2012; St James’ Theatre, London Jan-Mar 2013)
               
This latest revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 work conflates the old and the new, the past and the future. Max Stafford-Clark returns to the play he originally directed for the fourth time, but this time it is with an unusually youthful cast; the drama is steeped in history, yet its focus on the art of putting on a play makes it unavoidably and perpetually relevant whenever it is performed; and although death and enslavement pervade the story, somehow there is hope and salvation inherent in all its words and action. These combinations provide the magic which ensures this play remains a compelling tale of struggle, comradeship, and the power of theatre. If that sounds a little clichéd, then maybe it is; but in fact this production, after some rather weak beginnings, reveals a vitality and spark which disperses cliché and triteness and for the most part keeps things both rousing and intense.
Our Country’s Good trailer – courtesy of Out of Joint/Jonny Walton/kaptur.co.uk

For the first twenty minutes or so, the show hovers on the brink of disappointment. The opening scene, with its convict ship tableau, may have appeared more avant garde in Stafford-Clark’s original conception of the show, but here feels a little staid and predictable – certainly not the most gripping introduction ever performed. Yet to give the show credit, it soon came into its own as the cast sharpened their act up and got into their stride: indeed, more than a stride, rather a quickening run, as the production gathered pace and dipped and dived from hilarity to despair. The relatively young cast breathe fresh life into the work, bringing energy and vigour as well as deep pathos as, in the bold and heady Antipodean climate, the fragility of life emerges. Epitomising this is the wonderful, scene-stealing Kathryn O’Reilly as fiery Liz Morden, who brought shouts of slighted laughter yet also moments of painful, stomach-kicking silence in her dogged refusal to defend herself. O’Reilly is ably supported by Laura Dos Santos as a charming yet surprisingly steely Mary Brenham and Helen Bradbury in a forceful yet nuanced performance as Dabby Bryant. Similarly, Lisa Kerr as Duckling demonstrated Wertenbaker’s talents in weaving subtle and interesting roles as she exploited all facets of the character: stroppy, coarse, empty, heartbroken and desperate, Duckling’s is sometimes a tricky progression to negotiate believably, and Kerr did an impressive job of coping with the challenge, ably supported by her ageing lover Harry (Ian Redford).Not everything lives up to this standard, with some scenes falling back into the suggestions of dragging stasis hinted at in the opening. With the stage heavily populated in the officers’ meeting, the cast struggles to keep up the spark of interest and dynamism which is so powerfully present elsewhere: the episode feels long and drawn out, with little tension to sustain it. Dominic Thorburn’s Ralph teeters on the edge of falling into a similar pattern, as his early appearances gave the impression of detachment and a lack of identification with the role; yet Thorburn gradually channels this awkwardness into a subtle depiction of the naive young officer, and, by the climactic ending, flourishes in the part. Elsewhere, Wertenbaker’s titling of her scenes has felt like a problematic device for directors, and Stafford-Clark’s decision to keep some, but not all, in the spoken script was not convincingly thought out, with the effect being a little stilted, rather than adding anything memorable to the performance.These moments of uncertainty are an unfortunate muddying of the waters in a production that is otherwise triumphant in its humanity and emotional core. Just like the convicts and officers themselves, there is a sense that despite moments of difficulty, something sincere cannot help but shine through.

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