I’ve been going to the National Theatre for as long as I can remember and I have fought to be there. As a student I would sprint from the closing of the doors and get there just in time for the hope to get returns to withstand. There was a group of us – it’s alright, I was cool (ish). The National Theatre is a theatre Mecca and with that comes great things: a sizeable budget, the pick of the crop – a crop that includes every aspect of the industry – and, what’s more, expectation in the scornful eye that turns up, pays its money, and expects standard.
Within that standard, though, comes responsibility and within that responsibility comes an unwillingness to bend the rules, to dare too much, or to make a contemporarily contentious point. It’s utterly reliable, sturdily good and probably the closest thing to a movie that you can see in real life. But there is no danger, no edge of your seat-ness. There’s ‘merely’ the crème of the crop being solidly good with no necessity for brilliance.
Likewise, Our Country’s Good, is a classic. It taps into the truth of colonisation, social injustice, power and humanity. The harrowing assertion that social status dictates how you can be treated as a human being, even down to your right to life. If you’re born on the upper side of the social spectrum you’re hit with the even worse, incurable condition of power. Power that can seamlessly seep into abuse that violently and mentally becomes the norm. In Our Country’s Good this is shown in the dynamic between the prisoners and the marines but also in the marine’s blinkered occupation of a foreign land.
In this production that land seems to wager its own control in the form of an indigenous tribesman (Gary Wood). He moves in bold silence, fluidly unnoticed through his land and the new characters on it: puppeteering the course of their action as he goes. He is subtle and strong, making his mark on the piece in a way that those more overt don’t seem to manage. Similarly, Cerys Matthews’ score has a character all of its own. Sounds of English folk that beats into the narrative and develops into an atmosphere that even the impressive set can’t match.
Don’t get me wrong, the set is perfect – for example, making the Olivier’s drum revolve around stage is to its full advantage. Particularly impressive is the opening which sees the prisoners clamber, squashed, to get off the ship they have been cooped up on for the eight month journey to Australia, while the guards stand above them on the upper deck, trampling on those below, and surrounded by a sunset over a barren desert in an unknown land.
Likewise, the acting is all but flawless. Jodie McNee who plays petty criminal Liz Morden is particularly impressive. Liz is feisty, aggressively defensive and utterly hopeless. She is barely intelligible and yet McNee manages to control her impeccably. Matthew Cottle plays an earnest snuff-dealer with an in-depth interest in words and language. Lee Ross provides more comic relief as a melodramatic, seasoned pickpocket. Paul Kay is magnificent as his conscience rides into madness. The only problem with such a host of flawless performances is that when one isn’t quite on point, it really jars (no names mentioned).
That is precisely what carries through to the production as a whole. The story is forcing us to thing about the age old debate between crime and punishment, whether violence and entrapment squashes redemption and whether facilitating criminals with a voice will change their fortunes. Our Country’s Good centres around the criminals putting on a play and how that process benefits them, and improves their self belief, their moral fibre and their unity.
Once again the process of putting on a play is more beneficial to the players than it is to an audience. In this case, it’s a crowd pleaser. Its spotless standards are high but I didn’t leave the Southbank thinking about it, or any message it was trying to convey. Our Country’s Good, on paper, has plenty of meat to be contentious or satirical, but the National plays it safe. That’s the missing chunk of this production – provocation to think.
Our Country’s Good is playing at the National Theatre until 17 October. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Simon Annand.