Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good has reached ‘classic’ status just thirty years after its publication – and with good reason. Following the lives of criminals and officers as they colonise an area of coastal Australia, a process based on real-life events, the play speaks profoundly about human compassion in the most horrific conditions, whilst also commenting on the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument and the importance of theatre and its place in rehabilitation. Helena Jacques-Morten chose to wave goodbye to the St Andrews theatre scene with her own interpretation of this beautiful story and provided us with an enjoyable, though not flawless, evening of theatre.
There were three especially stand-out actors who truly elevated the show. Jen Grace played Lieutenant Will Dawes well, but it was her performance as Liz Morden in which she shone: appearing indifferent at first, but occasionally allowing the audience glimpses of vulnerability, her monologue at the beginning of Act Two was phenomenal. Robert Sideway, the convict convinced he belongs on the stage, was played by Louis Catliff with brilliant eccentricity, creating a loveable and hilarious character. But Benjamin Davies stole the show as Lieutenant Ralph Clark, capturing with ease the character’s investment in the play whilst maintaining an awkward inability to control his actors. Everything from his physicality, to his intonation, to his relationship with the other characters, was executed perfectly, and our sympathies were with him throughout the play.
Minimal direction sometimes works in the theatre. It can often maintain a certain rawness and naturalism, and force its actors to put themselves in the shoes of their respective characters. However, in other instances it isn’t quite as effective. For this particular play, there were several moments when lack of direction showed itself to be problematic; most notably, in the larger scenes where almost the entire cast was on stage, it often happened that the person speaking could not be seen due to chaotic movement of the other actors. For the most part this chaos succeeded – ad-libbing was used appropriately and humorously, and the radically different personalities and interests of the characters, displayed primarily through over-lapped delivery of lines and a range in speaking volume, created ironies and paradoxes which added life and vigour to the play as a whole.
Jacques-Morten and her tech team chose to use no music for the duration of the production which, almost always, added an eeriness and a ‘political’ tone to the play. The only time I felt its absence negatively affected the play was during the conflicted monologue between Harry Brewer (Andrew Chalmers) and his inner demon, Handy Baker, for whose hanging Brewer is plagued with guilt. Chalmers’ acting was, without doubt, strong enough to create an incredible moment out of this, but little was done in the way of lighting, set and sound so the scene didn’t reach its potential.
Overall, the show was a success and Jacques-Morten should be proud. There were a few moments which weren’t executed properly, but the quality of the acting was high, the set and tech choices were effective, and the performance did justice to this brilliant script.