Last year, the movie Hugo earned a lot of attention from eager film critics, a few of whom described it as Martin Scorsese’s ode to silent filmmaking, and many of whom were enraptured by its tacit, unwavering argument that cinema is capital-I Important. Along those lines, Theatre Erindale’s latest production, Our Country’s Good, celebrates everthing to do with live theatre. The production, directed by Patrick Young, explores the transformative power of theatre, makes the audience question its effect on a performance, and also offers some very sage advice from its theatre-obsessed main character, Lieutenant Clark: “Those who can’t pay attention shouldn’t go to the theatre.”
Our Country’s Good (written by Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988 and based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker) is set in 1789, and depicts true events from the colonization of Australia. In the play, Captain Arthur Phillip (Jonathan Walls) and his crew have just transported hundreds of convicts to the newly discovered continent of Australia. Looking for ways to occupy the convicts’ time and introduce some order to the newly founded penal colony, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Chris White) proposes that he could help the convicts put on their own theatrical production. Despite the reluctance of some of the other lieutenants and the colony’s reverend (Alison Blair), Clark convinces the good-hearted captain to approve the suggestion. They settle on a comedy, namely George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, and the convicts begin to put on their own unpolished and slightly unhinged production.
The story of Our Country’s Good is unconventional, and Theatre Erindale presents a lively adaptation. The staging is for the most part simple, but uses a few key props to great effect. In particular, the two large translucent screens that sit on either side of the stage prove multifunctional. Not only do they display the projected text when needed, they are also cleverly used to highlight eerie ghostly apparitions, and they mechanically tilt downwards at times to represent the walls of the tents that various characters live in. The entire set is even transformed a couple of times by colourful projections that recreate the world of an aboriginal man (portrayed by Julio Ospina) impacted by the colonization of his land.
While the main storyline is about putting on a play, there are also many less lighthearted story elements. Many of the prisoners claim innocence of the crimes they have been convicted of, and the play explores some of the many facets of justice and morality. But though the play is largely dramatic, there is also plenty of comedy interspersed as the play goes on, especially during the scenes in which the convicts rehearse their own play. These moments are a welcome break from the production’s heavier elements, and they also let many of the actors (almost all of whom play multiple roles) show off their comedic chops.
However, the way the comedy and drama are juxtaposed feels a bit jarring at times. For example, the first act ends with the play’s most broadly comedic scene up to that point. So when the second act began with much heavier moments, some audience members seemed unsure how to react. To be fair, though, my quibble has more with the source material than with the actors, who for the most part transitioned seamlessly through the play’s shifts in tone.
One actor who balances comedy and drama especially well is Brandon Gillespie. His primary role is the play’s most overtly villainous character, Major Ross, who strongly opposes the idea of letting the convicts put on a play. In to Gillespie’s blustering performance, the major is a character that’s fun to hate, but who also shows a volatility that seems legitimately dangerous.
Michael Esposito II also gives a charismatic and genuinely funny performance as Sideway, one of the more enthusiastic and theatre-minded convicts in Lieutenant Clark’s cast. And while Heather Dennis’s colourful convict, Dabby, might not be as pleasant of a character, she’s made loveable by Dennis’s boldly comedic performance.
The character of Liz Morden (played by Jessica Allen) is arguably the heart of Our Country’s Good. Though she’s one of the more acidic members of the convict acting company, her mistreatment in the past and present is slowly revealed over the course of the play, and she becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. Allen’s fearless performance only enhances the pathos of Liz Morden, and her portrayal rings strikingly true.
White is also strong in the central role of Lieutenant Clark. He seemed to become more assured in his performance as the story unfolded, giving a heartfelt, wry, funny performance as the sometimes exasperated but always well-meaning Clark.
Walls deserves credit as well for taking on two large roles and performing both equally well. He plays the captain of the expedition, who works with Clark to get the play produced, and also a thoughtful young convict who shows a passion for the written word. His performances may not be the showiest, but Walls is a steady, refreshingly natural presence on the stage.
That sentiment actually applies to a lot of things about Our Country’s Good. It’s not a flashy, action-packed production, but it rewards the audience in subtler ways. Theatre Erindale’s production offers several strong performances and some interesting staging, and while Our Country’s Good might take a little longer to get up to full speed, once it gets there it’s an enjoyable ride.
Our Country’s Good runs until February 19 at Theatre Erindale.