Thursday, May 22, 2014

Theater About Theater: Our Country's Good at the Guthrie

Last night, I saw the first performance of Our Country's Good, an Out of Joint and Octagon Theatre Bolton production showing at the Guthrie. It's an inventive theater piece, performed by a small cast playing multiple roles and manipulating the scenery, kind of like Kneehigh Theater did with their production of Tristan and Yseult a few months ago and Brief Encounter a couple of years back. But where Kneehigh's shows emphasize emotion, this one touched my head more than my heart.

The play follows a group of soldiers and convicts sent from England to found a penal colony in Australia, which would be the first English settlement in Sydney. With the direction of a young officer hoping to be promoted, a group of convicts rehearses a production of George Farquhar's comedy The Recruiting Officer.

As an actor, I found quite a lot to like in the depiction of these hardened, hopeless convicts learning lines and taking direction. There are a number of funny lines and good observations about theater in Timberlake Wertenbaker's script. But the play also touches on issues of crime and punishment, the possibility of rehabilitation, the dehumanizing effects of extreme punishment, and even a bit about the effects of colonization. It's a lot to fit into a play, even at 2 1/2 hours, so it lapses occasionally into preachiness.

The cast of Our Country's Good
Script aside, the acting was wonderful, with the players showing the gradual humanizing effects of their theatrical endeavors. The scenery, while spare, was effective, with a platform representing the ship, the stage, and a number of other objects, and a system of curtains and rigging reminiscent of the ship which brought the prisoners to the colony. The curtains provide the backdrop for beaches, tents, and finally the stage. The story, based on the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, is based on actual events. It makes me want to learn more about the time. I think I'll start with Out of Joint's Workpack on the play, available on the Guthrie's website.

The show also made me think about other plays about the transformative power of theater. A post for another time, perhaps!