"History, humour, drama and Art"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 18/11/16

The first Penal Colony established in Australia in 1788, after an eight months voyage, created a unique community, comprising Royal Marines officers and other ranks, co-habiting with convicts of both sexes whose ages included the full range of adulthood. These were considered dregs of society, transported clean out of England “For their country's good," by cultivating a new empire, also replacing the colonies, recently lost in North America.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's ground-breaking play, 'Our Country's Good' premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre during the two-hundredth anniversary year of the colony's foundation. Her's is a boldly dramatic narrative of fictionalised, yet fact-based threads of history, intelligently and skilfully woven into witty retorts and debate. The vast territory that is Earth's largest island, merely two decades earlier, was unknown to the developed (ie. warring) nations of Europe but as soon as British occupiers moved in, they began to corrupt Australia's purity.

Yet, most strange and true, is that in the first year of the penal colony's existence, an extraordinary experiment in rehabilitation for criminals was initiated, much earlier than tried in British prisons where now, it is often used; the performing of plays.

Gemma Fairlie's production has a Brechtian feel about it. The stage-set designed by Dawn Allsopp on The Redgrave Theatre stage, is sparse. It seems to display a sand-strewn beach beneath large sheets of canvas, unfurled from spars supported on stout masts, listing and wavering, as if at sea. The director varies the style of performance, alternating scenes of natural dialogue with excitingly choreographed sequences, symbolizing elemental storms and filling lapses of time with atmospheric ballet and representing storms and such-like.

Students of The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School perform the extraordinary range of characters with commitment and insight, the contrast between the civility of officers and the coarser convicts proves cosmetic as gradually, the flaws and virtues in every individual are revealed. Here, diction was not always clear and might be profitably improved as there is much humour and wisdom to be drawn, in Wertenbaker's script.

Pointing fingers at individual actors is inappropriate in an ensemble company that comprises some of the best drama students in the UK 'tho' certain portrayals stood out strongly as promising talents. Seeing youth develop skills that hopefully might in future, become significant entertainers, is half the pleasure in supporting Theatre School productions. But the other half is being well-entertained with inspiring drama and thoughtful scripts. “Our Country's Good' is a piece of theatre that deserves to be respected and applauded as an icon of the quality of drama that in the 21st Century continues the long heritage that the English-speaking world can be proud of - and appreciate.

Be transported to the Redgrave Penal Colony until Saturday 26th November 2016; a sentence that will rehabilitate for your own good, too.

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