Our Country's Good
 

 

country play

(L-R) Fergus Rattigan  as the hangman, Ketch, Fifi Garfield as convict Dabby and Sapphire Joy  as her shy friend Mary, Alex Nowak as the pickpocket Sideway, Tim Pritchett as Lt Ralph Clark, Emily Rose Salter as the young convict Duckling, Caroline Parker as the aged prostitute, Meg, Tom Dawze  as the Jewish convict John Wisehammer, and Gbemisola Ikumelo as the hardened criminal Liz Morden. Pictures: Catherine Ashmore

Our Country’s Good

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

****

Timberlak Wertenbaker’s 1998 play about a group of 18th century convicts arriving on a penal colony in Australia and putting on a production of The Recruiting Officer under the guidance of a young British officer, is given a fresh and inventive treatment by this ingenious co–production between Nottingham Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon Theatre company.

The play’s fundamental themes centre around the consequences and rewards of compassion. The two sets of people represented here, on the surface, couldn’t be further apart.

On one side, the down trodden convicts with minimal self-esteem or life expectations and on the other, the privileged group of British officers with orders to follow and a rigid status to maintain.

This is world where society is very much defined by who you are and what you were born into and God forbid any attempt to mix the elements together.

Step forward one young officer, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, played by Tim Pritchett, with an idea to bring the perceived criminals together via the medium of a play - in this case a production of George Farquhar's restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer.

the rev

Alex Nowak as the Reverend Richard Johnson, the first clergyman in the Australian Penal Colony and  Colin Connor as the strict Major Robbie Ross

After initial opposition from fellow officers who would prefer the convicts to be given more conventional tasks, the show does indeed go on. As rehearsals progress, personalities come to the fore as confidence grows alongside an emerging belief amongst the convicts that perhaps there is hope in life and that anything really is achievable.

What previously was a prison, both physically and mentally, is now a stage where long subdued dreams can be revived. The world has become their oyster, for a while at least.

Inclusive casting results in actors with a range of disabilities taking on pivotal roles. This only adds to the power of the message. Actors, who will know and have experience of discrimination more than most, playing characters at the sharp end of injustice. It doesn’t get more powerful, or truthful, than that.

fighting girls

Sapphire Joy’s Mary watches as Fifi Garfield as Dabby and Gbemisola Ikumelo as Liz Morden settle their differences

What works particularly well here, alongside appropriate casting, is the way the production is fully integrated to give the audience an equal experience.

Members of the company sign the play while in character rather than relying on a conventional, independent signer at the side of the stage.

Text captioning also provides a running transcript throughout. Crucially, we are not focussing on the disability, we are watching perfectly drawn characters in complete synch with their environment. Whatever the disability is, it’s irrelevant. What matters, and what draws attention, is the story and it’s telling.

Theatre, like any other art form, has a duty to reflect society in whatever stories it chooses to tell. This production sets something of a benchmark for inclusive, diverse productions that, hopefully, continue to be part of the mainstream output of UK Theatre. T0 02-05-18

Tom Roberts

24-05-18

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