Theatre: Our Country’s Good is as relevant today as it ever was

TO ANY STUDENT of drama, the words “Our Country’s Good” will instantly ring a bell. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about the plight of a group of convicts transported to Australia is staple reading for anyone who’s interested in the theatre. The stories of punishment, love and redemption that run through the play touch upon human interest,  the arts and politics. Those political overtones are as relevant today as they were in 1988, when Max Stafford-Clark directed the play’s first run at the Royal Court Theatre. This year’s revival, touring the regions before returning to the West End, sees Stafford-Clark at his very best.

Our Country’s Good is a play about a play. Based on the novel The Playmaker, by Thomas Keneally, it tells the story of a group of convicts transported to Australia for a variety of (often minor) crimes, and the soldiers who went with them. We follow the trials and tribulations faced by Ralph Clark (Dominic Thorburn) as he tries to convince the authorities of the “merits of theatre”. The Governor of the Colony, Arthur Philip (John Hollingworth) allows the play to go on, but Clark has to face threats, intimidation and his own personal lust (for Mary Brenham, played by the excellent Laura Dos Sanos) as he rehearses George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.

The performance space was simple: a wooden structure allowed the feeling of a ship or a tent. The cloth hanging at the back of the stage was a sail, a tent – and a stage curtain. The costume changes were performed as the actors finished each scene, pausing only to announce the name of the next. It was theatre for theatre lovers, and it was perfect.

At the end of the play, after the applause had died down, came a genuine but alarming reminder of the message we’d just received.  The Arts Council have cut the funding of the theatre company – Out Of Joint – by 20% in the last year, and they needed the audience to fill in a questionnaire to justify next year’s grant. The cuts have hit so hard that many companies, including Out Of Joint, have had to turn to charging the public to watch rehearsals.

Stafford-Clark and the cast then took questions from the audience. When asked about the relevance of the play today, Stafford-Clark was quick to touch upon the issue of funding. He was characteristically succinct: “Cameron and Osborne have done more damage to the arts in the last few years than Thatcher did in three terms of office”.