035 – Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker
It is 1789 in the newly formed settlement at Botany Bay in Australia. The Royal Marines are struggling to feed themselves and the community of convicts that they have transported from England. Three men are about to be hanged for stealing food. An officer flippantly suggests that hanging is the convicts’ favourite form of entertainment – “it’s their theatre”. The enlightened Governor of the colony is struck by another idea: that they might put on a real play to distract and entertain the imprisoned population, much against the view of many of his officers who think that any such culture would be wasted on the population of convicts and whores.
This unlikely story of a theatre production being put on by convicts in the new-found colony in New South Wales is true, for a group of those who were transported in what was known as the First Fleet to Australia did in fact put on a performance of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer in honour of King George III’s birthday in June 1789. Almost exactly 200 years later playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre to adapt the story of this extraordinary theatrical enterprise into a new play that could run alongside their revival of The Recruiting Officer. Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good premiered at the Royal Court in 1988, going on to win the Olivier Play of the Year award that year.
The play is now a common set text for Theatre and English Literature studies at both secondary and university level. It’s a vivid portrait of the volatile mix of the two sections that make up the new colony – the officers and the convicts. In the contrasts between the two, and in the parallels drawn with The Recruiting Officer as the convicts rehearse the play-within-play, the play raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good, or otherwise: the principles of justice and punishment; the stultifying constraints of class prejudice; the value and availability of education or culture, particularly the redemptive potential of theatre itself.
There is of course an obvious logic in our choosing Our Country’s Good to follow fresh on the heels of our last episode devoted to The Recruiting Officer, and the logic extends naturally to our inviting back our expert guest from that episode, director Matt Bereford. In fact, following his recent production of The Recruiting Officer at the Teddington Theatre Club, Matt will return to direct Our Country’s Good at the same theatre in 2022.
Matt Beresford is a director, speaker, trainer and leadership coach. He spent fifteen years working in business, before re-training as a Theatre Director at RADA, followed by an MA at St. Mary’s, University of London. He has directed a series of plays on the London fringe, as well as a number of productions for the amateur stage, including a production of The Recruiting Officer for Teddington Theatre. Matt has been invited to direct a new production of Our Country’s Good at the same theatre in 2022.
He also continues to combine his business and theatre experience to coach teams and senior executives on communication skills and leadership and is passionate about exploring the parallels between theatre directing and creative leadership in business.
George Farquhar’s rollicking Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer is ostensibly a portrait of officers engaged in the nefarious art of impressing men into the army in the country town of Shrewsbury, but it is as much a tale of the local ladies themselves recruiting for lovers and husbands. The classic comic satire of love and war, and sex and deception was first performed at Drury Lane in 1706, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and a staple of education curricula and theatre programming ever since.
Director Matt Beresford joins us to assess the ‘recruiting officers” respective strategies and successes.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …