Review: Our Country’s Good
The true story of first convict colony in Australia questions the meaning of ‘civilised’ society, at Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatres. Powerful, thought-provoking stuff.
It’s 1788 Australia, in a room with recently-landed convicts, and Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark is leading rehearsals for George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Trying to get the bullish, hard-as-knuckles Liz Morden to play the part of a Lady with more refinement, he asks her to imagine that being a rich Lady is normal. “It’s not normal. When some people have nothing, it’s not normal”, pipes in Robert Sideway, another convict cast member. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play is a comment on and rallying cry for social justice, and the Factory Company’s performance brings this into wonderful relief.
It’s an ensemble piece, in which the Company play a myriad of roles, all brilliantly, using the stage itself as a changing room. This laying bare of the conceit of acting is a clever way of engaging the audience with the play-within-a-play, as well as suggesting that all of us are simply trying on identities and taking them off again. Except of course, the convicts are imprisoned on the island, staying in crowded camps with rationed food, being beaten for stepping out of line, the women constantly at danger of sexual assault from the officers. The characters may have finished their voyage from England to Australia, but the audience is still on shaky waters, at once laughing at the dramatic frustrations of the highly-strung Clark and then pushed back into the shocking sounds of a whip on human skin.
It’s this mix of the escapism of theatre and the brutal reality of imprisonment that this production balances so well: art is transcendent, healing, and joyful – but it cannot take away present situations; it can only transport the convicts back to their beloved England in their minds, not in their bodies. This refusal to give a simple message of “isn’t art great” makes this play far more richly nuanced than a simple morality tale: yes, we need theatre and we need play. But we also need justice (a word repeated again and again in this play, to varying degrees of fruition).
At one point in rehearsals, mouthy convict Dabby Bryant complains about having to switch characters on stage. Clark replies that the audience will be swept up in the magic of the theatre –and besides, “People who have no imagination shouldn’t go to the theatre”. This gets a big laugh from the audience, as you can imagine. But it’s not just a playful nod to the meta-heavy production: it’s a challenge to the audience to use the arts as a tool for social change. Powerful stuff, acted with energy and integrity.
Our Country’s Good is on at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until Sat 11 May. Age recommendation 14+ tickets from £12.
Tobacco Factory Theatres, Raleigh Road, Southville, Bristol, BS3 1TF. Tel 0117 902 0344. tobaccofactorytheatres.com
Words Alex Sayers; photography Mark Dawson Photography.