First performed in 1988 and inspired by the stories of the first convicts shipped to Australia, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s political powerhouse Our Country’s Good wears its years remarkably well.
Wisely, director Anna Girvan and the repertory company at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatres have echoed the original structure, with cast members underlining the complex theme of crime and punishment by doubling as both officers and prisoners. The production is made more intimate by being set in-the-round by designer Anna Reid, and this also helps bring out Wertenbaker’s abiding message of the civilising nature of theatre.
Captain Phillip, played with impressive humanity by Luca Thompson, sees his role (unheard of at the time) as rehabilitating rather than endlessly punishing the convicts. He asks Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (an equally likeable Joseph Tweedale) to break the penal monotony by staging a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, in the process opening up for the first time the possibility of a different, gentler way of life.
There is high drama along the way – one of the convicts, Liz Morden (lent an abrasive mix of Cockney resentment and hope by Kim Heron), is due to be hanged despite her leading role in the play, while another, Mary Brenham (Paksie Vernon), is in love with Lieutenant Clark – but this only adds to the emotional power.
Humour plays a strong hand, too, especially in the rehearsal scenes sending up both the stage and its patrons. Danann McAleer is hilarious as the thespian pickpocket Sideway destined to become the colony’s first luvvie, while both convicts and officers are well suited to gender-neutral casting.