“Our Country’s Good” at the St James Theatre

Since its première at the Royal Court in 1988 Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, Our Country’s Good, has been widely recognised as a modern classic. This production, coming from the show’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, has a fine pedigree that makes it a revival not to miss.

The story of Australian convicts and their keepers who put on a play is a rich text that works on many levels. It’s easy to see why it has been adopted on to many a school syllabus. To the fore for Stafford-Clark is the theme that theatre has transcendent qualities that can transform its participants.

The hard-labouring cast take on a variety of roles playing prisoners, soldiers and the actors they become when putting on the play. As the lines they perform and different roles they take on become multi-layered, the cast maintains clarity and, under Stafford-Clark’s skilful hand, builds humour and tension.

Special note must go to Ian Redford who seems barely off the stage and makes each of his roles shine. If the play has a lead, it’s Matthew Needham playing Captain Collins, who becomes the director of a company of convicts, learning lessons about himself along the way. Needham brings a directness to the role that ensures its appeal.
Much of the humour in the play comes from theatrical in-jokes, but the play is strongest when it deals with bigger themes such as the plight of the female convicts, scarred by their transportation and forced into prostitution to survive. Wertenbaker’s writing has real bite here, and the performances, especially from Kathryn O’Reilly who plays the formidable Liz Morden, and Lisa Kerr as Duckling Smith, are superb.

At a time when his own excellent company, Out of Joint, is victim to savage cuts in funding, Stafford-Clark has drawn parallels with the current government and the philistinism of the Thatcher-era. Indeed, the transformative power of theatre seems especially important at a time when arts funding is under such pressure, despite the industry’s undoubted success. Our Country’s Good itself could easily serve as an example of how great British theatre can be: a superbly written play with brilliant performances and masterful direction.

Until 23 March 2012

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Robert Workman

Written 5 February 2013 for The London Magazine

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