Don’t think for a second that Australia’s early colonization is comprised of many happy stories. Not only was the New South Wales region a late 18th century dumping ground for those convicted of criminal activity but many destined to serve out a sentence never lived to see their native English soil again.
Yet this is where playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker takes us with a historic dramatization of an exiled troupe’s rigorous attempt to perform a comedy for fellow inmates. Blissfully humourous and intriguingly human, Our Country’s Good is a deeply moving portrait of how the power of art can alter lives from any segment of society.
Much of that credit goes to Max Stafford Clark whose staging wisdom has ensured that the multi-layered narrative has stood the test of time.
The legendary U.K. director takes time out of a busy rehearsal schedule to discusses how the project came to be and why such an uplifting export may go down as 2014’s most talked about theatre experience.
Canadian directors have a unique style unto themselves in creating theatre. How do you describe your approach to the directing craft?
In the U.K., something theatre does is to recycle and give us back our history. So where in Australia history is told by novelists like Thomas Keneally, Kate Granville, Richard Flanagan and others, here it’s theatre that does that.
So in terms of style, research is important to what I do in the rehearsal room. This morning we were at the National Maritime Museum. And something else I use a lot is a detailed text work through a process called “actioning”.
This is where the cast and I work through the script line by line, thought by thought and to every line we apply a transitive verb – that’s a verb that you do to someone else. The line might be “would you like a cup of tea” but depending on what a character is trying to do to another character the action could be distracts, charms, or recruits.
You must have directed 250 plays throughout your career. What single production helped you master the craft in preparation of a story like Our Country’s Good?
‘Fanshen’ was very formative. It’s an epic play about communism coming to a Chinese village, and I co-directed it with Bill Gaskill, who had been Artistic Director at the Royal Court and with whom I’d co-founded the Joint Stock Theatre Group.
Bill was something of a disciple of Brecht; I was more a disciple of Stanislavski so that was very educational.
And then there have been verbatim plays, as they’re now known. A kind of documentary play where the script is based on interviews with real people. Those have been instructive experiences.
What was important to you back in 1988 when you brought this story to life?
I wanted to avoid disaster!
The script was being written as we rehearsed it so it was hard to get a global perspective of it. None of us knew it would become a classic.
Do you look at the narrative differently now than you when it debuted?
History is cyclical.
David Cameron and our Chancellor George Osborne have inflicted more damage on theatre in three years than Margaret Thatcher managed in her whole time in office. So it’s still apposite.
This play arrives in our city on the 25th anniversary of the Oliver Award winning production. Is it true the idea for this project germinated after a visit to an American book store?
Yes, I was marooned in New York, having transferred ‘Serious Money’ from off-Broadway where it had been a huge hit. It didn’t fare so well on Broadway.
Each act of ‘Serious Money’ ended with an obscene anthem by Ian Drury. I remember being in the theatre at the interval hearing a woman say “Well I did not understand one word of that and the only word I did understand I wouldn’t possibly repeat.”
My only friend was the theatre’s barmaid who gave me free whiskies. I was at a loose end. I couldn’t rehearse for more than 90 minutes a day or I’d trigger overtime and when we did rehearse we’d do so under a single lamp or we’d be charged for technicians.
One day I strayed into a Barnes and Noble looking for a novel. I bought Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker and it turned out to be the kind of book you have to slow yourself down with.
The idea occurred of a double header, consisting of the comedy The Recruiting Officer with a new play about how it came to be Australia’s first theatre production.
This play has been called a ‘modern classic’ and ‘a celebration of the humanizing force of theatre.’ Did you ever imagine that it would garner the success that it has?
Theatre can be a savage god which often we give more to than it gives back to us.
So when a play emerges from its cocoon as a modern classic it’s very satisfying. But it can’t be anticipated.
With a cast of 10—many of which assume up to three different roles—Our Country’s Good is a play within a play as it tells the historic event whereby members of an Australian penal colony in 1789, with help from an English naval Captain, stage a production. This doesn’t go over as easy as it sounds?
Then as now, recreational activities for prisoners were politically contentious and disapproved of by the officers.
In addition the leading lady is condemned to hang – understandably that disrupts the process.
Does the story belong to any one particular character that we should be watching more closely than the others?
Ralph Clark is an interesting choice as a central character. He’s the young marine officer who directs the convicts in the play.
Ralph is deeply flawed; he’s timorous, misogynous, and homesick. And he as much as his cast of convicts acquires humanity and compassion through staging the play and through his proximity with them.
Playgoers can glean so much form this offering which succeeds on many different levels. There’s a rebirth of dignity for these characters with an emergence of hope. Is this a play about redemption? A return to innocence? The motivational force of theatre or something else?
The power of theatre is intrinsic certainly. It’s also a love story and a comedy.
To quote David Hare: “I write love stories because love is the most powerful, life changing thing that happens to us and I write comedies because I find this idea absurd.”
Our Country’s Good returns to our city at a time when big budget musicals dominate much of the scene. What do you promise as a theatre experience to those that may not think a story like this is as easily accessible?
It’s a play about a new world, a frontier world – like the Wild West or an alien planet or like early settlers in Canada would have found. That’s exciting.
And it goes back to a kind of ground zero in terms of theatre – it’s about these convicts, these petty criminals who would never have thought of being actors. It’s a very powerful story about the fundamentals of a civilization.