The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Autumn 2015
When Timberlake Wertenbaker's play about transported convicts in Australia putting on a play premiered at the Royal Court in 1988, it was performed in repertory with Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, the play the convicts are doing here, and with the same actors playing the roles in the Farquhar they were rehearsing in the Wertenbaker.
In that context her sentimental comedy-melodrama was seen as a nice gloss on the Farquhar, the two bouncing off each other in resonant and entertaining ways. Since then, Wertenbaker's play has become a set text for schools and exams, but the question facing each new production is how well it stands on its own.
And the answer in this National Theatre revival is shakily, with only occasional moments of the play's emotional and comic power coming through, while the whole is almost buried under a production of elephantine size and ponderousness.
This little play about small character revelations and growth would unquestionably be happiest in the studio Dorfman Theatre, but has been stuck in the Olivier, where everything has to be big and broad and slow-moving to register.
The hardest hard-liner among the Royal Marine officers who serve as jailers has to be played by Peter Forbes as a brainless thug, the sailor driven mad by a combination of loneliness and guilt (Paul Kaye) has to writhe and roll about the stage in near-epileptic spasms to signify emotional distress. The Governor (Cyril Nri) who believes in rehabilitation rather than pointless punishment becomes a plaster saint with little hint of humanity.
The Olivier's notorious multi-level drum revolve gets its once-a-decade outing, to no special effect – generally a lot of scenes are played on two levels with a steep sideways tilt – except to draw attention to the machinery and away from the people, and although a programme note acknowledges that 'the stage directions of Our Country's Good make no reference to music until the very end' director Nadia Fall has chosen to punctuate almost every scene with new and sometimes startlingly clashing blues and gospel flavoured songs by Cerys Matthews.
The result is that the central story – of the convict-actors and their officer-director discovering themselves, a sense of community and an all-but-lost belief in their dignity through rehearsing their play – has to fight its way out to our awareness, rather than letting us find it.
Some small moments do register in their quietness – the convict (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) realising that playing someone else lets him escape from his own pain, the tense and tightly-wired rebel (Jodie McNee) discovering in her loyalty to her fellow actors a way to let down some of her protective armour.
But the subtle ways the characters' relationships begin to mirror their roles in the Farquhar are completely lost, and the two most invisible characters in this production are the ones who should be at its centre, the inner play's director and its star, who grow individually while also being drawn to each other.
Jason Hughes and Caoilfhionn Dunne do what they can – or what they are allowed to – with these roles, but they're like figures barely visible in the distance waving hopelessly for us to spot them.
I do not think it is necessary to offer The Recruiting Officer alongside this play for it to work (though it would be fun, and exactly the sort of thing the National Theatre should be capable of doing).
I do think Wertenbaker's play needed to be trusted more than director Nadia Fall seems to have, and allowed to display its modest strengths without being buried under a too-big production like this.
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