Every now and then a new play comes along that becomes an instant modern classic. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is one such drama. First staged 25 years ago, this rich, warm play, with its impassioned advocacy of the humanising power of art, became an immediate hit. Now Max Stafford-Clark, who staged the original, has mounted a fleet-footed revival, and the play has lost none of its punch. His production for Out of Joint comes as theatres and companies struggle with funding cuts: Stafford-Clark is a master in the art of witty yet serious provocation.
The piece dramatises the true events detailed in Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker. Faced with implementing order in the first penal colony in Australia, the liberal governor Captain Phillip floats the idea of staging a play. Up steps ambitious young Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark with an offer to direct Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Despite objections from the conservative officers, Clark is allowed to embark on his experiment. There’s much very droll comedy as Clark recruits his actors from the convicts, many of whom despise one another, and rehearsals proceed in a haphazard fashion.
But slowly and skilfully Wertenbaker depicts the transformative potential of theatre. The disparate group becomes an ensemble with a common goal; convicts and officers alike are changed, expanded and dignified by the experience. In one superbly moving scene, as two authoritarian officers viciously bully a convict, the remaining prisoners suddenly slip into reciting Farquhar’s play, defiantly using the inconsequential comic dialogue to face down their tormenters.
Huge themes roll around the stage – about art, social injustice and inequity, punishment and reform. But Wertenbaker also paints a vivid picture of an impromptu community improvising their way forward. All sorts of boundaries are crossed, as this fractious microcosm of the old country adjusts to a new environment. And despite the play’s close focus we feel the seismic shifts in the wider world: the action culminates in 1789 – elsewhere there is revolution in the air.
This is a playful but profound piece of theatre: didactic, yet complex; angry, yet charged with hope. It brilliantly matches style to content by requiring a versatile ensemble to play multiple roles, reminding us not only that good theatre runs on empathy all round but that our roles in life may be randomly assigned. Stafford-Clark’s fine, nimble cast rise to this admirably, with Dominic Thorburn standing out as the earnest director Clark. A modern masterpiece, lovingly revived.