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Our Country’s Good – Birmingham REP

Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker

Director: Fiona Buffini

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Looking for possibly the definitive antecedent of The Dirty Dozen trope? The maverick junior officer who puts his career on the line to take on a disparate, desperate cohort of the meanest scum on the planet and, up against all the odds, the disbelief of his seniors, and especially said scum themselves, whips them into shape with redemptive triumph.

Wertenbaker’s original stage adaptation of Keneally’s 1987 novel was commissioned in 1988. It can hardly be coincidence that both followed the 1986 publication of fellow native Australian, Robert Hughes’, masterful publication The Fatal Shore, a revelatory, sometimes controversial, account of the British colonisation of Australia.

Set in a founding1789 Australian penal colony, the plot relates the true story of one Ralph Clarke, a Marine 2nd Lieutenant consumed with staging a production of The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, a society comedy of manners written in 1706. With a gallows irony worthy of its title, his cast will be drawn from the convicts. A play within a play, it demands a generous degree of verisimilitude that is often more honoured in the breach than the observance. Its allegorical retrospective projection of contemporaneous post-colonial guilt seeking redemptive contexts within a Republican enlightenment ideals finds the medium often overwhelming the message: Art can enlighten and rehabilitate even the most wretched.

Ensemble company Ramps On The Moon sets the bar near impossibly high in its mission to take on challenging projects where the inclusivity and immersive casting sees a diverse cohort of young and older actors, some 60% with disabilities, take on roles assisted by audio description, captioning, signing and voice amanuensis. Their recent adaptation of The Who’s Tommy was outrageously daring and a sensation that had The REP audiences spellbound. They certainly exploit a fluency in the internationally shared sign-language of the bawdy to great effect.
Worthy, eternal themes of triumph over inhumanity, the reclamation of dignity, fight for justice, atonement, redemption and catharsis are liberally explored through Socratic and Humanist exhortations from the enlightened Governor-in-Chief, (Kieron Jecchinis) who risks his reputation and possible mutiny in his support for the heroic Clarke, played with very much needed cohesive rigour by Tim Pritchett.

All the cast discharge their roles superbly. The technical and creatives similarly. But there is a but, indeed a number of buts. The production is far too long with several scenes of confusing narrative irrelevance or protracted endurance – the utterly unanticipated death of Harry Brewer (stalwart work as ever from Garry Robson); the sudden ‘romantic’ attachment between convict Mary Brenham (Sapphire Joy) and Clarke; or the rehearsal scene where the actors assume alter-luvvie egos that descends into near self-parody farce. Colin Connor as Major Robbie Ross (utter major bastard) does more than could be asked for in a role that is clunkingly stereotyped. More convincing, but still script-bound by predictability, is Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Liz Morden. From the guttural gutter-maggot to soaring butterfly she gives wing to her inner nobility. This transformational Eliza Doolittle moment set against her earlier monologue of near impenetrable criminal slang escapes contrivance by a whisker not least because of her innate stage-craft.

There are moments of whiplash snapping, viscerally compelling drama. The pitch and tar, blood and urine sweat stench of brutality and colonial hypocrisy has a seductive, primal immediacy gnawing at the fabric of every character’s tortured soul. The grotesque tableau of Ross insisting the ‘cast’ continues to rehearse as one of their company is dragged off-stage to have his whipping allowance topped-up is unforgettable, all the more for eschewing is graphic portrayal. The gaol-house scene: though shackled and manacled, they transcend their appalling situation and run through their lines is of a higher order. In Keneally’s novel, the Governor-in-Chief tells an evangelical Priest, ’The eight-moon passage to this place has been as absolute a change as death and therefore altered morality.’ Worthy of a Greek tragedy.

Milton Lopes as the Aboriginal Australian utters ‘dreamtime’ abstractions with a dignity all of his own. And though of a spiritual poignancy it remains for the audience how to intuit what these esoteric conundrums actually mean or represent. (There’s a suggestion of Jim Morrison dropping acid in the desert poetry about it.) Does his ‘ghostly’ presence juxtapose the pagan morality of the ‘Noble Savage’ with the Christian civilisation of the colonist who utilise Transportation as an explicit one-way-ticket policy to rid the country of the undesirable – the denial of an individual of his/her homeland? The imminent systematic annihilation of his native ancestral race would soon be turning the Dreamtime into a nightmare his descendants still walk through to this day.

Ramps On The Moon finds the measure of this play and exposes its limitations, notwithstanding making it a success on their own unique terms. That each individual can so effectively weave their own narrative so seamlessly also demonstrates its capacity for fresh interpretation, if not even transformation.

Runs Until 2 June 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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