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Review: Our Country's Good at the St James Theatre


Whether by design or coincidence it seems appropriate to see a play extolling the virtues of theatre at a time when their functionality is under threat from Government spending cuts.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good is essentially about the redemptive power of theatre. Based on true events, a radical thinking governor (John Hollingworth) of a penal colony in 18th century Australia suggests the convicts put on a play which, he believes will be beneficial to both captives and jailers.

Naturally the idea is not universally liked by either side. The soldiers, many of whom are reluctantly in Australia, prefer to keep the prisoners in their place with a brutal regime of starvation, hard labour, humiliation and punishment. The prisoners are suspicious.

Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Dominic Thorburn) volunteers to direct the play and so embarks on a journey towards opening night troubled by losing cast members to the death penalty, romance, prejudice and artistic temperament.

The harsh reality of penal life - prisoners are lashed for minor misdemeanours and hanged for less - creates a brutal back drop onto which Wertenbaker's has painted a moving and often funny tale of redemption and discovery. She doesn't, however, put theatre on a pedestal and uses the play within a place device to poke fun a theatre-craft and audiences.

If the value of theatre is to explore, challenge, inform and entertain then Our Country's Good certainly succeeds. This is an exemplary play and production in many ways, moving and funny and very well done. If it could have been improved then it is perhaps that the interludes performed by Damola Adelaja, which reflect colonialism from an Aboriginal point of view, felt too incidental to have any real impact.

Our Country's Good runs at the new but perfectly formed St James Theatre in Victoria until March 23.

Recently seen and liked:

The Captain of Kopenick, National Theatre 

The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

Port, National Theatre