National Theatre, London
Our Country’s Good is undoubtedly a wonderful play; the text is intense, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and funny. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, it tells the tale of the first convicts deported from Britain to Botany Bay, and how they put on a production of The Recruiting Officer in honour of the king. Even on the page, it has the power to make the reader question the very nature of humanity, and to consider how theatre can aid the civilisation of the most troubled soul.
A shame, then, that the National Theatre’s production, directed by Nadia Fall, should play up the comedic aspects at the expense of everything truly important in the play. We laughed, yes – but we didn’t cry.
The set is magnificent, and the opening moments genuinely awesome, the rotating wooden stage splitting and rising to reveal the ship’s hold, an unfortunate convict lifted through the hatch to be whipped. But the ensuing cacophony of singing and shouting from below means that we hear neither the convict’s cries nor the subsequent silence, and the unbearable sight of seeing a man so maltreated has barely any effect at all.
In truth, it’s just not grimy enough: the prisoners’ plights not desperate enough to make me yearn for their redemption in the way I have in other productions I’ve seen. By foregrounding the comedy, Fall has sacrificed a key ingredient of the play: the abject misery and desperation which marks the convicts’ lives. Nor do we get a sense of what the officers suffer: they too are far from home, cut off from everything they know. But it’s hard to feel much empathy here, when their brutality is rendered so superficially.
But it’s the music that really undermines this piece. Cerys Matthews’ score is clearly thoughtful and well-intentioned, but – for me, at least – it really doesn’t work. It undercuts the tension instead of heightening it, impeding the audience’s emotional response. The scene where Harry attacks Duckling, for example, is rendered absurd by his sudden bursting into song.
There are good things too: Lee Ross skewers Sideway’s pretensions with deft precision, and Matthew Cottle’s Wisehammer is nuanced and complex. But they’re not enough to save this production, and that’s a crying shame. It could so easily have been a triumph.