by Timberlake Wertenbaker at the National Theatre, tickets from £15
I can’t say that I enjoyed Our Country’s Good, and I think the basic problem is the play’s politics. It’s a worthy liberal play, its primary theme the rehabilitation of criminals and the redemptive power of art. It’s reasonably well written, and at the National Theatre it’s well acted. And yet…
The play is sent in a convict colony in 18th-century Australia, and concerns the efforts of one of the army officers in charge to put on a play, and by doing so rehabilitate some of the convicts by exposing them to culture. Now, I’m all in favour of working-class people having access to culture. Apparently the play was first produced at a time of Tory arts cuts under Thatcher, and was understood as making an anti-Tory argument. The problem is that this notion of the civilising power of art can leave entirely unexamined the role of the middle-class types handing out culture to the great unwashed: it leaves us with a struggle between two sections of the middle class, whom you could stereotype as uncultured Thatcherites versus well-meaning Guardian columnists. In Our Country’s Good, for example, one of the people who most strongly supports putting on the play is the colony’s governor, a cardboard cut-out liberal, utterly saintly and determined to improve things for the colonists. Yet, as governor, he manages and benefits from the system he spends so much energy decrying.
The liberal politics of the play are also reflected in its portrayal of the working-class convict characters. You feel that the actors playing these roles, often with great skill and conviction, are doing everything they can to render them fully as people. Yet the script is clear that it’s the middle-class characters who really understand and control the world, so that the convicts are always on the edge of becoming stout-hearted but ignorant proles, comic characters who are benign because they have no ability to threaten anyone or anything.
The second political problem concerns the colonisation of Australia. Our Country’s Good shows one of the horrors involved in this, the brutality used against British convicts deported to the country, often as an alternative to being hanged, at a time when hanging was used as a punishment for a huge number of offences. But colonisation was also a disaster for the Aboriginal people of Australia. The play and production don’t seem able to make up their mind what to do about the Aboriginal issue. It’s not fully included, but it’s not entirely left out either, and the result is the worst of both worlds. A young man prowls about the stage, wearing body make-up that suggests we should see him as an Aboriginal. He’s a ghostly presence: he speaks only once and never interacts with the rest of the cast. It raises the issue of the Aboriginal people without really saying anything on the subject. This problem is only made hugely worse by the use, as a backdrop, of a huge Aboriginal-style painting. The painting is enormously beautiful, but the scenes acted out in front of it make no reference to the society from which it comes.
Oh, and the music is appalling. There is a lot of music, written by Cerys Matthews of Catatonia, which wasn’t included in the original script. It slows the play down, doesn’t add to its message in any way and, well, just isn’t very good. So, all in all, a worthy but dull evening at the theatre.