Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol – until 11 May 2019
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is an unquestionable modern classic. This is at least the third major production of this play seen in Bristol over the past four years, a work that is now firmly entrenched in the theatrical canon. So, you can understand the thinking behind Tobacco Factory Theatre’s pairing it with A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a pair of big hitters in their Spring Rep season. But like their Dream, this is a work that only produces intermittently, a production that stifles as much as illuminates the piece.
Wertenbaker’s 1988 play was based on true testimony of a group of convicts who were sent to the penal colonies of Australia in the 1780s and decided to put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer to the rest of the camp. It asks highly important questions, still as relevant today, about what and who the theatre is for. Part of the reason the work is so beloved is it shows the moment that life takes on meaning when putting on a play, the eureka moment that has taken so many of us by storm. The work’s final lines, spoken in turn by each member of the company ‘tomorrow’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘tomorrow’, are inherently moving, as each of these people, who seem to possess little hope, realise they have something to wake up for.
Director Anna Girvan has set her play in what appears a modern prison/institute. All nine actors wear grey jogging bottoms and white trainers, they are lit from above by six strip lights. As part of their research into the play the company visited a prison and found that the reconviction rate from inmates who attended their drama lessons were zero. Drama really does turn around lives. Yet by setting it in a modern context, it adds more questions than it answers. Why are male and female inmates holed up together? Are they rehearsing the play Our Country’s Good? I found its anachronisms jarring.
She runs with the Brechtian theory’s built up around the play, actors speaking the scene surtitles into mics and commentating on the action more than inhabiting the roles. It sends the play, that works best when it displays the stifling heat, the tear of skin against whip and thirsting desire into something slightly cold and clinical. The acting being patchy doesn’t help, although there is another striking turn from Dan Wheeler as a vicious Scottish Officer and Sasha Frost who shows stillness is usually at the forefront of powerful acting.
The play still grips, it would take a very poor production indeed to ruin that, but you can’t help feeling that Girvan hasn’t fully got to grips with this one. Theatre does change lives, but this production is unlikely too.