by SOPHIE KERMAN
“Theatre,” says Governor Phillip early on in Our Country’s Good, “is an expression of civilization.” In Timberlake Wertenbaker‘s 1988 play, now on the Guthrie Theater‘s McGuire Proscenium Stage, certainly makes a case that theatre has the power to provide dignity and self-respect in the most abject places. Set in 1788 in New South Wales (now Australia), the play follows a group of convicts who are recruited to act in a play, ostensibly so that they have something more edifying to watch than an endless parade of hangings.
Our Country’s Good is based on a true story of an Australian production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, and as a historical play, it does not shy away from the painful details of the lives of the convicts. Depicting situations of food scarcity, deep economic and sexual inequalities, and extreme punishments for small offenses, the play certainly casts a critical eye on British history in Australia. As an American who knows little about the subject, this was interesting to find out about, though perhaps not as trenchant a critique as it would have been were I more steeped in British/Australian history.
The play’s arguments about theatre itself, though, are more problematic. Created, and subsequently revived, at times when arts funding was under threat, Our Country’s Good has the clear agenda of promoting the value and transformative power of the arts. This is an argument I support to the fullest; however, if “theatre is an expression of civilization”, then the play fails to think critically about whose civilization is being expressed and promoted. Although some convict characters rightly object that Farquhar’s Restoration comedy has nothing to do with them, Our Country’s Good ultimately portrays upper-class theatre as a means of civilizing the unwashed masses, a message that both condescends to its actors and sidesteps some of theatre’s real political and revolutionary potential. (As a plea for more funding, however, they play’s appeal to the charity of benevolent patrons of the arts is undeniable.)
This being said, however, the Out of Joint / Octagon Theatre Bolton Production is excellently done. Although almost the entire ensemble is cast in multiple roles, they all provide convincing, at times moving portrayals of characters in unthinkably difficult situations. The women – Kathryn O’Reilly, Jessica Tomchak, Anna Tierney, and Victoria Gee – all stand out for their three-dimensional performances, as well as for their admirable skills at (intentionally) spitting long distances. Somehow, as one of two actors of color in the cast, Cornelius McCarthy has to play both a Magical Negro (in this case, Aboriginal) and a caricatured groveling Malagasy man (see Uncle Tomfoolery); to his credit, he does a good job with poor writing, and particularly shines as the narrow-minded officer Watkin Tench.
While Crimes of the Heart, the other play currently on a Guthrie main stage, is a problematic interpretation of a good play, Our Country’s Good is a good interpretation of a problematic play. Together, they create a clear picture of what kinds of audiences and artistic values are being cultivated by the Guthrie. Although I hesitate to cite so many tropes in one review, this play is a fairly clear example of White Man’s Burden – the idea of the privileged having the responsibility to bring “civilization” to the underprivileged – being used as an argument for increased arts funding. Its goals are laudable, the acting is vivid and engaging, and its historical aspects are fascinating… if it does succeed at pulling in more wealthy donors, then will its troubling politics have been worth it?
Our Country’s Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker. At the Guthrie Theater, May 21 – June 29, 2014 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $34-64 at http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/our_country%E2%80%99s_good.