The sharp, splitting crack of a whip electrifies the audience, ripping through the cool wash of silence. We are transported immediately from the comfort of the Keble O’Reilly to a penal colony in Australia – the year is 1789.
Our Country’s Good is a production from which you cannot tear your eyes away – it is utterly captivating in plot, characterisation and execution. One by one, we become familiar with the characters as they trickle into the forefront of the action. The story is centred on the suggestion by plucky young officer Lieutenant Clark to stage a play in which the convicts will act. And so the plot unfolds: enacting a punchy engagement with questions of justice, civilisation and morality through an intense, anthropological lens.
The audience is sunk to the same level as the stage and the bare wooden set seems a fitting backdrop from which the raw, bleak existence of the convicts and their officers is carefully embroidered. We are thrust into a time and place saturated in the melancholic solitude of homesickness, dense and almost tangible as a result of the wholly convincing and fleshy portrayals of each character.
The accents and voices are crisp and throw us deep into the epicentre of personal laments and expressions of desperation which cultivate a truly immersive atmosphere. We experience the occasional and soulful songs of some of the convicts which almost paralyse in their riveting yet beautiful nature. The clarity of voice and lyric plunges the audience into the harrowing solitude, guilt and pain of the colony: we remain mere spectators no longer.
Every utterance and movement of each character seems carried out with a microscopic precision and becomes wholly mesmerising, the actors managing seemingly effortlessly to embody the dehumanised, almost animalistic, behaviour of some of the convicts, only to transition to encapsulate the pompous, stoic and well-spoken figures of authority as smoothly as they slip on their red uniforms.
The play manages to achieve moments of great pain and despair intermittently interrupted by bursts and scenes of intense hilarity injected into the plot by the superb comic interplay of Lieutenant Clark and the convicts. The spectacle is peppered with moments of touching warmth and intimacy in its wholly convincing portrayal of the rejuvenation and re-humanisation of the convicts through the efforts of Lieutenant Clark and the play he organises.
The satire woven into the depiction of colonial authority is subtle yet sharp, yet nothing is exaggerated or overdone, despite it being an easy temptation.
An utterly fascinating spectacle.
Our Country’s Good is playing at The Keble O’Reilly Theatre until 1st November
PHOTO/Keble O’Reilly publicity