‘Our Country’s Good’, WCS, Feb 2010.


Think yourselves privileged actors, I had to create a whole new category for you darlings.

A quaint building that looked like a cross between a village hall and a barn hosted Wells Cathedral School’s production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s epic ‘Our Country’s Good’. I feel this may have worked in their favour though, as the director had chosen something of a “very simplistic” set, picking out only the sails and tents, and using removable blocks for seats and so on, which were placed and re-placed by the rather competent stage crew (a most unusual feature). Wertenbaker is a little infuriating in that she does seem to end every scene with her characters still on stage, meaning you will always see the actors going offstage if the theatre isn’t dimmed quite enough, like in this case, thus meaning one can lose the suspension of disbelief that has been built up throughout the scene, but I feel this is more the fault of the playwright and the restrictions of the theatre space in which the cast and crew had to work, rather than the fault of the latter. Ritchie Hall was also a little chilly and one did need a stretch of the legs at half time after being exposed to the seats for so long, but these were only minor ailments. One must make sacrifices for Am-Drams.

It now strikes me as unusual that this play is a set text for A Level, as the themes involved are quite intense and need a fair degree of understanding to perform them accurately, but the programme ensured me that the cast has done copious amounts of background reading and studying of the text in preparation for an equally intense performance. Generally, I found a small divide between the officers and the convicts – as the convicts had been written with more personality, they are easier to act and you can put far more character into them than if you were playing an officer. Possibly another fail by Wertenbaker?

Having said that, it IS a good play! The first half starts with a rather brutal scene of a convict being whipped by a sadistic officer – an eye-opening vision – after which the officers line up and deemed “all present and correct” by Major Robbie Ross. The latter part here was a devious add-in by the director, who felt the word “cunt” unsuitable for a school play, thus exchanged part of the dialogue with character introduction. However I think it worked well, as so many characters in a play can occasionally be a little overwhelming for an audience freshly exposed to a new play with such content. There is a highly frustrating device used by Wertenbaker, who chose to have an Aborigine narrate the play. So he pops up every now and again to state some poetic rubbish about what’s going on, and doesn’t really fulfill his proper purpose as no one really knows what he’s actually talking about. Not a bad portrayal by the actor though, but I never can decide whether it would be more accurate to play him with an accent, or whether this would be deemed racist. I think today’s society would be prone to choose the latter. Fail. ‘Punishment’, one of my favourite scenes of Act One, was executed very well, and the cast managed to hold onto the fact that every line is significant. I’m always amused by the irony in this scene that the officers are waltzing around, shooting birds at their own leisure, and discussing the idea of punishment for their convicts and whether it’s a morally good idea and what it’ll prove. Scene Four, where we first scene the innocence nature of Ralph Clark and the somewhat unstable nature of Harry Brewer come through, created a good rapport between the two characters by the actors, but I felt their timing could have been better on some of the lines, and Harry could perhaps have been less formal, more out-spoken towards his comrade. This would have given greater effect to his character, but like I have said, the officers were rather hard to play. Unless you were one of the evil pair of Major Robbie Ross and  Captain Jemmy Campbell. These two were, literally, bastards. Ironically, they were played by two of the most jovial and friendly people I know, but their acting skills did somewhat take over and I had a hard time talking to them afterwards. ‘The Authorities Discuss The Merits Of The Theatre’ is, aside from the beginning, the first scene we see all the officers together, and various characters did come out pleasantly strongly here. Other actors need to pick up on the idea that just because you are not speaking does not mean you are not acting, but it was well executed in general. Captain Jemmy Campbell oddly, considering his sadistic nature, provided the comic relief in the scene, which was juxtaposed by the intense anger from Major Robbie Ross. The blocking of the scene could perhaps have been revised slightly more, as there were times when, looking at the stage face-on, some characters were completely blocked by others – something of a social faux pas in the theatre – and not all characters moved so this problem didn’t always stop being a problem, but aside from that, well done. An endearing connection between Harry and Duckling was created by the actors plying them – a necessity considering Harry’s fate – and the characters of Dabby Bryant and Liz Morden were both played strongly. There was an odd choice from the director, who decided to make her Hangman (Ketch) a Hangwoman, which I rather feel would be somewhat inaccurate given the context. Frequently in school productions there aren’t enough men for all the male roles, but you can dress a woman up to be a man any day, which was done with about four of the officers, so why change the entire character to something rather unbelievable? It was still played well, but didn’t work in the context of the play. The First Act ends with the First Rehearsal, in which we see again the character of Sideway, who can come to life a little more now, and was done so quite magnificently by the actor. He created much comedy for the audience, which is essential in a play with such subject material, and it was an excellent end to the first half.

The actors developed their characters well in the second half, leading to a somewhat poignant scene of Harry’s death and Duckling actually saying how much he means to her, and to Ralph and Mary engaging in ‘A Love Scene’, which does rather make all that Ralph has said about his wife back in England a little pointless, but if the actors create enough chemistry between the characters then it can be a believable event. This round left things a little to be desired, mainly because I felt stronger actors were used for stronger parts, and the actors playing Mary and Ralph could have accentuated the personalities a little more. Irritatingly the Aborigine makes more appearances. Not that this is the cast’s fault. There was a technical fail on the last scene when the lights were brought down before they should have been: that coupled with the fact that the actor playing Wisehammer, who finishes the play, was a little too “Rada” to be portraying a convict, and Beethoven’s Fifth was not used for final music (as stated in the text), led to a slightly weak ending – a shame, considering the rest had been so good! It was a convincing performance, and not half bad for a school one. Well played actors.

Cast:

Captain Arthur Phillip – Ben Gibb

Major Robbie Ross – Ed Barr-Sim

Captain David Collins – Amy Harding

Captain Watkin Tench – Maddy Herbert

Captain Jemmy Campbell – Tom Bench

Reverend Johnson – Louis Heriz-Smith

Lieutenant George Johnston – Hattie Seaton

2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark – William Offer

2nd Lieutenant Will Faddy Ebs Barr-Sim

Midshipman Harry Brewer – Hamish Cranford-Smith

An Aboriginal Australian – Felix Nicholson

John Arscott – Will Dalby

Ketch Freeman – Emma Murton

Robert Sideway – Alex Masters

John Wisehammer – Alessandro Tortini-Rostrapovitch

Mary Brenham – Polly Baker

Dabby Bryant – Megan Henson

Liz Morden – Jess Dowdeswell

Duckling Smith – Ann Macleod

Meg Long – Verity Wingate

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