Our Country’s Good – review
National Theatre

Published: Thursday, September 3, 2015 10:57 AM | Review by: Gillian Fisher |
Jodie McNee – Liz Morden, Cyril Nri – Captain Arthur Phillip, Our Country’s Good  © Simon Annand Jodie McNee – Liz Morden, Cyril Nri – Captain Arthur Phillip, Our Country’s Good © Simon Annand

The acting in this production is of a uniformly excellent standard.



Timberlake Wertenbaker’s historical drama explores the role of art in human development and the nature of criminality. When the first Australian penal colony was founded in 1788, a unique hierarchy was established. There was no spectrum of social status, only the rulers and the ruled. Nadia Fall’s direction skilfully emphasises this bilateral dynamic and the play abounds with charged group scenes. The officer faction seem drunk on power and exercise brutal control over their wards. Treated as less than human by their gaolers, the convicts have nothing to prove and frequently succumb to brawling behaviour. But what if they were given the chance to act with civility? Could staging a play allow the convicts to engage their inherent humanity? As rehearsals commence we see the power of art to instil hope in the grimmest of settings.


Based upon the historical events of First Fleet, the production allows an insight into the harsh realities of colonialization. Many of the characters are based on actual settlers, their names appearing in journal entries and pamphlets from the period. This makes the scenes of torture and humiliation all the more harrowing. A key player in the ritual degradation of the convicts is Major Ross played by Peter Forbes. In a series of alliterative outburst he asserts that violence is the only language the prisoners understand. Governing officer Captain Phillip contests this view and suggests the play as a means of uniting the two groups. Cyril Nri (read interview) plays this idealistic officer with superb poise and reflection. Always armed with a glass of wine, his elevated position speaks more of sage experience than of privilege.


Jodie McNee – Liz Morden, Cyril Nri – Captain Arthur Phillip, Our Country’s Good  © Simon Annand Jodie McNee – Liz Morden, Cyril Nri – Captain Arthur Phillip, Our Country’s Good © Simon Annand

This intense and energetic production demonstrates that the roles we are assigned may not be the roles we were born to play.


The set designed by Peter McKintosh consist of a few wooden crates and a broad cyclorama depicting a hazy Australian sky. To the settlers, this landscape is as alien as the lone aborigine who overlooks their colonialist efforts. This figure played by Gary Wood is a constant presence, his tribal dances and ritual acts reinforce the indigenous culture of the bush. This is contrasted by the score written by Cerys Matthews, which is rooted in the Celtic folk ballad tradition. With many of the convicts hailing from Ireland or provincial communities this lyrical addition speaks of their homeward longings. Ashley McGuire embodies this homesickness as Dabby Bryant. Australian rain is simply not the same as Devon drizzle.


The meta-theatre technique is used to great effect in this piece. The convicts live out their fantasies through their assumed identities and discover unknown facets of themselves. The greatest transformation comes in the form of Liz Morden. Played by Josie McNee, this red headed scouser stomps around the stage like a rebellious schoolboy, her speech littered with expletives. Yet in playing a gentlewoman in the show, she finds some quiet dignity. This almost costs Morden her life as she refuses to defend herself when accused of stealing. But in being shown respect, the woman who has only known hardship is able to express herself with grace.

Background Jonathan Livingstone – Caesar, Shalisha James – Davis – Duckling Smith, Our Country’s Good  © Simon Annand Background Jonathan Livingstone – Caesar, Shalisha James – Davis – Duckling Smith, Our Country’s Good © Simon Annand

The acting in this production is of a uniformly excellent standard. Notable performances comes from Paul Kaye as Midshipman Brewer who is plagued by the ghosts of men he has seen hanged. Also Matthew Cottle as convict Wisehammer, whose considerable literary skills fail to save him from vicious anti-Semitism. As the narrative unfolds we discover some of the convict’s backstories. Victims of circumstance, they turned to crime as a basic means of survival. A simple case of being born into poverty and lacking the opportunities and education afforded to the officers.


In putting on a play the convicts can aspire to be something other than what they are perceived to be. This intense and energetic production demonstrates that the roles we are assigned may not be the roles we were born to play.


Info: Our Country’s Good is at the National Theatre until October 17, 2015 | Book tickets


Related links

Jonathan Livingstone - interview




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