I love this angry and beautiful play. It says everything about the transforming power of theatre and its essential role in society. Max Stafford-Clark’s own company, Out Of Joint, was a major casualty of the funding cuts last year, so there couldn’t be a more appropriate time and context for him to revive the classic he commissioned and directed in 1988.
He has assembled a cast whose desperate characters can articulate - in so many accents - all the complex arguments about justice and injustice, with a humanity that puts us passionately on their side. The play still shocks with the pettiness of the offences that have brought the convicts to the flogger or the hangman and with the savagery of their treatment, vividly replicated here.
The production works brilliantly on so many levels, with the cast doubling and tripling roles so that there is not only a play within a play but an actor can be giving voice to both persecutor and persecuted. The comedy is rich and laugh out loud. Matthew Needham’s Robert Sideway out-Bottoms Bottom in his thespian aspirations, and the savagery with which Kathryn O’Reilly as the feral Liz Morden roars out her lines can bring the house down.
Yet there is such tenderness and anguish too, especially from Ian Redford as the foolish and tormented Harry Brewer, Laura Dos Santos as the intelligent Mary Brenham, and Dominic Thorburn as the callow second lieutenant, Ralph Clark. That he is also redeemed is one of the play’s greatest triumphs.