Commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark in 1988 to play in rep with Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play has become a respected and much-loved classic. Her starting point was Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, about a real event in 18th century Australia: the performance of Farquhar’s play by the first convict colonists. But she also comments implicitly on the treatment of prisoners now and celebrates the transformative power of art, especially theatre.
Nadia Fall’s chief innovation is to weave music, some traditional, some newly written, some from elsewhere, into the narrative. While the sheer beauty of this occasionally softens the toughness of a piece (which does not shrink from showing the brutality of treatment meted out to convicts, male and female) it ultimately adds another dimension. Cerys Matthews’ mixture of songs from different sources is a reminder of the challenges of migration, forced or otherwise, and provides another powerful, emotional medium, especially as rendered in Josienne Clarke’s bell-like voice.
The Olivier stage gives a sense of the intimidating space of an unknown land with the revolve used to good effect against Peter McKintosh’s backdrop with its striations of red, blue and brown suggesting Aboriginal painting.
Among an exemplary ensemble, Jodie McNee’s fierce, indomitable, tuft-haired Liz Morden is outstanding. Ashley McGuire’s worldly Devonian Dabby knows how to land a comic line, Cyril Nri’s Captain Phillip provides the measured voice of humanity and Jason Hughes gives the play’s determined director Ralph Clark a fervent romanticism.
The ending, as the convict performance begins – to Purcell rather than Beethoven – is as uplifting as ever.