Image by Robert Workman
Since 2012 Kathryn O’Reilly has toured both nationally and internationally as the strong but savage Liz Morden – a total of 318 performances as the female convict from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s classic play Our Country’s Good.
From London to Toronto and Minneapolis, O’Reilly has taken her own rendition of Liz to a variety of audiences and performance spaces: “Theatres [in America] were so much bigger than the theatres we were playing at in England so it required a different type of performance in a way. And in Toronto it was actually in our contract that we had to be miked because the theatre was so big, I think it was a 1500 seater.”
“Audience wise, generally we received really positive feedback”, O’Reilly says of both sides of the pond, but she noticed a few differences in the reception from British and international viewers. For example, one contentious scene where a group of female convicts surround a solitary male prisoner and spit at him, “in Toronto and Minneapolis in particular the older generation found it much more highly offensive… We had some walk-outs because of it.”
O’Reilly has been playing Liz Morden on and off now for years, so her understanding of the character had inevitability deepened over that time. “As an actor you’ve gotta be in love with your character”, she explains, “and you can’t judge your character from your perspective, from your life. You’ve got to take that character on board and you’ve got to understand every decision and choice they’ve made.”
She thinks the more time she spent playing Liz, and researching her world and the era in which she lived, the more sympathetic she became towards her character: “It’s a world apart from me and who I am. I can relate to her in very small ways, but it’s such a harrowing story. I suppose the more I played her the more I understood her world.”
“What I like about Liz is that she’s a very strong character who has been through tremendous abuse on different levels. What attracted me is the journey that she goes on…she overcomes things.” O’Reilly sees a story like this one, with a very strong character’s arc that develops and redeems its character throughout the play, as a very attractive challenge for actors. Liz is a character from a background of extreme poverty, lack of education, family betrayal and institutional abuse who “goes on this wonderful journey where at the end of the play she does have a voice and she is listened to. She has the ability to change and she does change.”
Liz Morden is a “survivor against all odds”, and the power of her story in this play is that it’s a story that is, as O’Reilly puts it, “quite timeless”. There may not be barbaric prison ships sending men and women on weeks long voyages to Australia any more, but you could still almost meet a ‘Liz Morden’ walking down the street.
“In terms of what she been through, coming from extreme poverty and deprivation, no formal education, abandoned by her mother, betrayed by a criminal father, suffered the injustice of being framed by her father then consequently arrested and humiliated for a crime she did not commit. This desperate young woman, a victim of crime and the criminal justice system turns to a life of crime and prostitution herself and who does what she does in order to survive… that’s someone’s story now.” According to O’Reilly there’s no questioning whether or not this play is still relevant. She thinks that not only does that play have modern day value as an educational tool, but also that “it’s a part of our history so of course it is relevant. The society that we live in today is a result of the society of yesterday.”
The power of this play is a direct reflection of its story – the play within a play that changes Liz Morden forever. O’Reilly thinks that it’s not just a theatrical story, and that what Our Country’s Good is actually saying is very true. “I know theatre can give people an expression”, she says, “it can allow people to communicate in ways that they’ve never done before, and it can open them up to their own emotions in a way that they’ve never experienced before.” We should never underestimate the impact that a play, performance or work of art can have, after all, “theatre and the arts do have the power to change peoples lives. It changed Liz’s life.”
More information can be found at Our Country’s Good’s website