Generally Speaking

‘Our Country’s Good’ at St James’ Theatre

Our Country’s Good was a great treat this afternoon at St. James’ Theatre, London. The production capitalised on the intimate atmosphere of this brand-new theatre, with the superb sound creating a realistic impression of being surrounded by Australian wildlife.

We know this play well having produced it with our local group some years ago, but what a superb piece it is. Based on a true event it tells how the enlightened governor of an 18th century prison camp in Australia stuck his neck out and got one of his officers to organise the prisoners into producing, of all things, a play. Trying to introduce some civilisation amongst the savagery. And ultimately succeeding.

So we have a scenario for discussing what plays, and indeed art itself, are for. And we have a contrast between the brutality and degradation of daily life in the camp, depicted here in horrible detail, and the emerging humanity of the disparate cast. A clever device, which we also used to the full in our production, was the doubling of parts. So that, for example, the gentle and reviled prisoner who has been forced into the role of hangman becomes, by donning a wig and uniform jacket, the most vicious and sadistic of the officers. Thus the fact that there is a common humanity beneath the most contrasting exteriors is symbolised in the very structure of the play.

There are really beautiful scenes: I remember loving the¬† prisoner explaining his passion for words when we did the play years ago, this afternoon it was all the more moving to hear it again, and so beautifully performed. There is the hilarious first rehearsal of the play when a prisoner who once saw Garrick¬†himself perform insists on overacting. Another in which a trustee takes his sulking woman out for a trip in a rowing boat and she gradually unbends to him. And so on. It is a parable of so much that is important today. It’s a superb production, in a superb new venue, and we are aglow with the memory tonight.

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