Condemned to a brutal world, British prisoners act out their humanity in ‘Our Country’s Good’
Review: “Our Country’s Good” by Timberlake Wertenbaker, produced by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theatre Wit through Feb. 22. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
On the surface, a play about 18th-century British scofflaws creating a play while imprisoned in the distant wilds of Australia might seem, well, remote – and too likely to harangue on the morally transformative powers of theater. Suspend your disbelief. “Our Country’s Good,” by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, explores such a premise in crackling drama that’s raw, funny, sober, persuasive and brought off with disarming humanity by the fine ensemble of Shattered Globe Theatre.
Set in 1788, Wertenbaker’s play is based on historical events. The governor of a British penal colony in Australia decides floggings and hangings alone will suffice as a cultural plan for the prison. Capt. Arthur Phillip (portrayed with visionary flair by Drew Schad) believes it would be in society’s greater interest to rehabilitate these wayward folks who one day will be released into the melting pot of this new land. (As the crossing from England to Australia took several months, those who survived their incarceration could be expected to pursue life where they had landed.)
Capt. Phillip hits upon the idea of staging a play, finds a plausible organizer-director in Lt. Ralph Clark (the good-hearted, patiently suffering Stephen Peebles) and settles on a play: George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy “The Recruiting Officer.” As luck would have it, there are two copies of the play at hand, and some of the inmates can read. Others prove adept at memorizing.
But the course of prison drama never did run smooth, and obstacles to this idealistic venture arise quickly – first and fiercely in the objections of the officer directly in charge of the prisoners, Maj. Robbie Ross, whose notion of discipline is beatings and hangings. That’s how you keep order among a den of thieves, cutthroats and prostitutes. And Ben Werling is a holy terror as the ruthless Maj. Ross, who accedes to this play nonsense only with the understanding that it will not interfere with the prisoners’ duties or their warranted punishments.
The performance I saw, at least, did not begin auspiciously. It dragged, for a seemingly long time. Neither dialogue timing nor narrative progress was particularly fluent, and I wondered where this could possibly go. But once rehearsals for the play-within were convened, Shattered Globe’s troupe was off and running; by intermission, I’d completely succumbed to the plight and peculiarities of Wertenbaker’s endearing characters.
While there’s some very funny stuff, “Our Country’s Good” is no farce and Maj. Robbie is no comic Capt. Hook. When Werling’s fearsome commandant comes down on his charges – reviling them, threatening, humiliating – you feel the house go quiet. Meanwhile, the valiant efforts by Lieutenant-stage director Clark to cast and rehearse ‘The Recruiting Officer’ are met by sundry obstacles. Testy relations among the prisoners spill over into refusals to play subservient roles, and some inmate-actors take a cavalier view of the whole enterprise. But Peebles’ even-tempered Lt. Clark is undaunted. He’s also, as we discover, a lonely, disconsolate man, sharing with his fellow officers the same homesickness suffered by the prisoners themselves.
The prisoners are quite a bunch, a rough and fascinating collection stamped with vividly individual personalities. Director Roger Smart, who is also Shattered Globe’s artistic director, has forged a rogue’s band of brothers and sisters, the ironic commonality of prisoners and officers underscored by having most actors play multiple roles, in some instances switching between oppressed and oppressor; some women in the cast also portray characters of both genders.
Several of these hard-bitten types are quite memorable – and so the more affecting their progressive immersion into the play within the play as well as their eventual embrace of one another. Eileen Niccolai nearly steals the show as the gritty prisoner Liz Morden, a woman whose survival jacket is a shield against human sympathy, but who in spite of herself betrays genuine vulnerability. Kevin Viol is a delight as a prisoner who, with some awareness of great 18th-century British actors, sets out to emulate them by – how does Hamlet put it? – sawing the air, to the dismay of the company’s director.
Mary Franke and Abbey Smith offer intriguing bookend portraits of two female prisoners, the one of easy virtue and buried sensibility, the other sweetness itself – and literate, the kind of a girl a bereft lieutenant could go for. Dillon Kelleher provides an appealing intellectual, the prisoner as gentle wordsmith, indeed guardian of le mot juste. And Ben Werling, the wild-eyed Maj. Robbie, does a complete reversal as a dull bulk of a prisoner whose role in ‘The Recruiting Officer’ is that of – what else? – a British officer.
As for multiple roles, director Roger Smart also designed the efficiently stylized set, complete with a hanging tree leafed out with bits of rope from frequent executions. Sarah Jo White’s costume scheme allows us to watch actors morphing from officers to prisoners and back, a wordless commentary on the shared lot of these souls consigned to the end of the world. The play’s the thing wherein this consciousness is caught.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Profile of British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker: Read it here
- Preview of Shattered Globe’s complete 2013-14 season: Details at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Abbey Smith, Ben Werling, Dillon Kelleher, Drew Schad, Eileen Niccolai, Kevin Viol, Mary Franke, Our Country's Good, Roger Smart, Sarah Jo White, Shattered Globe Theatre, Stephen Peebles, Timberlake Wertenbaker