Jonathan Hall reviews Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel Our Country’s Good at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Our Country’s Good
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel has rightly earned the status of a modern class; this staging by the company Ramps on the Moon brings powerful new dynamics to the story of British convicts staging a play in the fledgling state of Australia. On first sight a play about a play (adapted from a novel), discussing as it does such themes as the power and application of words and the effects of theatre on individuals and society may sound in danger of being less than riveting; all I can say is in this vibrant staging by this company of D/deaf* and disabled actors isn’t in any way shape or form. The success lies in the fact these concepts are played out by a cast of characters- downtrodden convicts and resentful soldiers- who give a powerful truth to the notion of the civilising powerful of theatre.
Although early scenes where these concepts are discussed- tell, rather than show- dropped slightly in energy this was more than made up for by later scenes where the same concepts are shown through the various stories of the characters involved; the homesick soldier finding love and meaning through theatre, the leading lady performing under threat of imminent execution. Perhaps the most powerful and poignant scene shows rehearsals continuing as an act of defiance in the face of an officer’s attempts to degrade the cast, the lines run to the pitiful sound of one of the crew being flogged.
A subtle staging by Neil Murray evokes the blues and yellows of the alien new country- ‘this upside down desert’ as one convict describes it and an ever haunting, subtle soundtrack is provided by Jon Nicholls.
An extra, powerful dynamic to Fiona Buffini’s production lies in the fact that Ramps on the Moon is a company that consists of at least 60% D/deaf* or disabled characters; the story of men and women marginalised by an ignorant society often for the most trivial of reasons is here presented by a group of people who have energetically transcended their own potential marginalisation. Signing and subtitles are an integral part of the production throughout; the signing is wonderful, being performed either by those in the scene or by others on the fringes in ‘Greek chorus’ style.
The energetic and committed cast do the show full justice; notable amongst them are Alex Nowak as the convict totally immersed in the world of theatre, Emily Rose Salter as the rebellious kept woman and Gbemisola Ikumelo as the sardonic but vulnerable leading lady under threat of death; however each and everyone of the cast deserve full accolades for the signing which was such a beautiful, dramatic and yet non intrusive part of the action. In a play about words, the words are given their own physical beauty giving an extra dynamic to arguments about the redemptive power of words and theatre.
*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).