Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Director: Fiona Buffini
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good seems an apt and almost perfect choice for the third of Ramps on the Moon theatre’s annual touring productions with UK repertory theatres. This collaboration, with Nottingham Playhouse, is currently on tour and with a 17 strong integrated cast of deaf and disabled actors. The playwright’s themes and words often have heightened significance given the production’s inclusive nature of cast and creatives.
Arriving at a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia, in the 1780s, the play focusses on the relationship between the serving British soldiers and marines and the convicts sent into exile. Taken from Thomas Kennealy’s novel The Playmaker, the convicts, under the directorship of Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, decide to rehearse and produce a production of George Farqhuar’s restoration comedy The Recruitment Officer. From auditions, through rehearsal, to opening night the cast and director struggle in the face of opposition from superior officers and from within. Ultimately, it is the story of the power of art and of participatory engagement: the journey and not the outcome.
Fiona Buffini’s production employs a wholly integrated cast of actors who are 60% D/deaf* or disabled. Every performance has surtitles and audio description and the cast onstage incorporate BSL into their performance or sign for other members of the cast. It is a truly accessible production that adds another layer of resonance onto a play that already has strong themes of social integration. At times some of the convicts sit at the front of the stage, like a storytelling of crows, interpreting the action behind. In other instances actors interpret the text for non-BSL actors and/or speak the lines for other Deaf actors using BSL but who are mute. It sounds complicated but is performed with such accuracy that there is never a chance of confusion. One particular scene between convicts John Wisehammer (Tom Dawse) and Mary Brenham (Sapphire Joy) about the joy of words and their meaning become beautifully captured through the visual as well as the audial. And Lizzie Morden’s (Gbemisola Ikumelo) slang strewn rant at the beginning of the second act becomes a masterpiece in translation itself.
Neil Murray’s simple stage set consists of a wooden stage with sections that often move out to reveal sand underneath and a cyclorama either portraying a beautiful Australian sky or the twinkling stars of the night. Jon Nicholls’ score and sound design is evocative and moves the action along nicely in between the Brechtian-like ‘announced’ scenes. Because of the nature of the piece the acting, at times, can stray into presentational rather than naturalistic, as the performers often make sure they are clearly facing the audience and, of course, due to the slight lag in interpretation the pace of play inevitably lags as well as the humour in some of the more comical moments when the convicts are attempting to rehearse their play.
Wertenbaker’s discussion about the power of art and theatre is summed up by one officer’s announcement that “the content of the play is irrelevant”. As any drama practitioner or participatory project manager will attest the power of inclusion and a shared experience is much stronger than the outcome itself. But, of course, this becomes a paradox in itself for companies like Ramps on the Moon and Graeae who don’t want to be seen as ‘inclusive’ theatre companies, rather theatre companies who produce work that happens to include D/deaf and disabled actors. The truth in this play is that the content is wholly relevant because, as is explained in the piece, a play is a tiny colony itself.
Wertenbaker’s play about redemption is standing the test of time. Its themes of educative and restorative power rather than punishment may be at its heart but, inevitably, it is social inclusion that drives this production.
*The term D/deaf differentiates between those who are Deaf (sign language users) and deaf (who are hard of hearing but who have English as their first language and may lip-read and/or use hearing aids).
Reviewed on 11 April 2018 | Image: Contributed