I think I like it mostly because it sounds like it could be the name of a particularly difficult technical challenge on Great British Bake Off. Like, a 28 tier meringue construction topped with caramel and spun sugar or something. Which I would totally eat by the way. But I digress.
Wertenbaker’s (it’s even fun to type!) most famous play is Our Country’s Good. Telling the story of a group of transported convicts and the soldiers who are forced to accompany them, Our Country’s Good is a celebration of the importance and redemptive potential of the arts, and of rehabilitative justice more generally. In the current economic and political climate it feels like an extremely timely and relevant piece to be occupying one of the stages of the National Theatre. Plus as a fully paid up member of the bleeding heart liberal club on both crime and arts funding it’s a piece which very much speaks to my confirmation bias.
Central to the plot is a planned performance of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (intertextuality and a play within a play - you can tell this is an A Level set text!) put on by a cast of convicts under the direction of ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark at the suggestion of the new and (relatively speaking) progressive Governor of New South Wales. The Governor sees his role as helping the convicts’ rehabilitation so that one day they will be able to form a functioning community in his territory and believes that encouraging their education is a key part of that. On the other side of the coin is the cruel and authoritarian Major Ross who cares not a jot for any kind of education or rehabilitation of the convicts in his charge; they are there to be punished and control, and the only way to achieve that is through fear, violence and hangings galore.
Whilst Ross and the Governor could arguably be better described as personifications of particular points of view rather than fully developed characters - although both Peter Forbes and Cyril Nri respectively are great with the material they’re given, Forbes especially as a frighteningly brutal Ross - Ralph Clark is more interesting. Clark takes the job of directing the play purely to advance his own career, having been overlooked by the Governor for a long time having failed to carve out a niche for himself amongst the soldiers. He is emotionally closed, deeply (entertainingly) sexually repressed and a fairly unremarkable, shy, priggish soldier. Seeing the changes that working on the play together as a community bring to his company of largely illiterate criminals, though, he starts to change too. He becomes more humane and outspoken, challenging Ross’ brutality and standing up for his play and his cast to anyone who tries to do it down. He also becomes more open, caring about his cast as human beings and, ultimately (predictably), falling in love with one of them.
Jason Hughes, AKA Sergeant Jones off of Midsomer Murders, the best of Tom Barnaby’s sidekicks and anyone who disagrees has bad opinions, is a decent Ralph too. Although his ‘love story’ scenes feel a bit stilted (not entirely his fault, this part of the main plot was for me by far its weakest), he is an excellent increasingly-less-reluctant director, especially in the rehearsal scenes in act one which are undoubtedly the highlight of the play, and his growing empathy and spine in the latter scenes is deeply compelling. He also gets some fantastic lines which he has a lot of fun with, the passionate proclamation that “anyone who can’t pay attention shouldn’t go to the theatre” being a particular highlight for fairly obvious reasons.
Although this story is fairly simple and predictable it still makes for a compelling and coherent piece of drama. The same cannot be said of the subplot about one of the working class officers, Harry Brewer (Paul Kaye adding to his CV of long haired madmen with this very well realised but ultimately pretty pointless entry), and another convict, Duckling, the point of which I fail to really understand (something about freedom, I guess?) I could've quite happily lived with this largely unrelated and not especially fulfilling, until its bitter end, diversion being cut altogether. Maybe the subplot wouldn't have felt so out of place had this production not dispensed with the play’s usual casting principle of having the majority of the actors play both a convict and a soldier to emphasise how trapped both groups were. Giving the production a greater emphasis on the idea of freedom in this way would probably have helped tie the various strands together more neatly, I think.
Niggles aside the production is technically very clever - making excellent yet subtle use of the Olivier’s drum stage - great to look at (I loved the painted backdrop; so beautiful) and benefits from a great atmospheric rootsy/folksy/bluesy soundtrack by Cerys Matthews of Catatonia fame who I fucking LOVE. It’s hard to believe it’s her first foray into writing for the stage and I really hope it’s not her last. The ensemble cast is really strong and the inclusion of bona fide folk musicians to get the most from Matthews’ songs is an act of minor genius.
Despite my reservations, then, I really enjoyed Our Country’s Good and still think it’s an important piece to be staged and seen right now. And I feel like I have another loyalty stamp on my bleeding heart liberal membership card for having seen it. Definitely worth a look.
Our Country’s Good plays in the Olivier theatre at the NT until 17th October.