Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

15/08/2012 - 25/08/2012

Production Details

400 buttons, 900m of rope and Something to Say…  

It sounds like the beginning of a dodgy joke: a South African Director walks into the New Zealand Drama School to direct an Australian play containing 400 buttons and nearly a kilometre of rope.  

Award-winning Cape Town director Geoffrey Hyland arrived in Wellington a week ago and immediately got busy directing Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School.

Our Country’s Good is set in Australia in 1789, one year after the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. The motley collection of convicts, marines, governors, and crew has established the first penal colony in Australia. Conditions are grim, and a young married lieutenant is directing rehearsals of the first play ever to be staged there. With only two copies of the text, a cast of convicts and a leading lady who may be about to be hanged, conditions are hardly ideal…

Winner of the Laurence Olivier Play of the Year Award in 1988, Our Country’s Good is based on actual journals of the time and deals with love, barbarity, and ultimately the power of theatre as a humanising force.

“It’s a fascinating play, full of metaphor about how the arts work to transform society. I love watching people begin to understand their common humanity and see the individual not a number or a stereotype. Our Country’s Good delivers that along with the spectacle of a big play with a big cast and big design requirements,” Hyland said.

There are 21 characters in Our Country’s Good and for Daphne Eriksen, the costume design is her graduation project in a Bachelor of Design (Stage & Screen).

“I started down this road in 2005,” Eriksen said. “I paused to have two children and have loved coming back to complete my degree and work on a project which allows me to explore the rich and textured world we see in Our Country’s Good. One important focus of the costume design was to use authentic materials of the time, like wool, cotton and linen, and through the dying and distressing process the materials can then communicate deeper metaphors of the play and world.”

The garments are all being constructed as they would have been made in the 1780s and then ‘broken down’ to look like the characters have been wearing them non-stop for years. To help with ‘distressing’ the costumes, Toi Whakaari is bringing in John Harding, who was the New Zealand costume designer for Avatar and has also worked on Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

“Each character’s costume holds a sense of history and time; of where they have been and who they are as individuals,” said Eriksen. “Through a visual language the costumes become a vehicle for storytelling.”

There are 14 costume students working on the show, alongside two professional costumiers, and they have more than 400 buttons to sew on to the soldiers’ uniforms, not to mention all the other little details that make the period setting work.

By contrast, the set design for Our Country’s Good is very sparse. It also uses all natural materials, including sand and leaves. Most interesting though, is the 900-odd metres of rope that creates a cell for audience and cast alike and holds an eight-metre-high eucalyptus tree.

“While the set is simple, it is not simplistic,” said Joshua Foley, the set designer, and like Eriksen, a graduating design student, “I’ve enjoyed the challenge of making this play relevant to the context of New Zealand today. As a creative team we worked to create an environment that could speak in metaphor, rather than re-creating a historical landscape. We’ve had to be very resourceful in finding 900 metres of rope and an eight-metre high eucalyptus tree – thankfully we have a great team working on the show!”

Where:  Te Whaea Theatre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown
When:   7pm, Thursday 16 – Saturday 25 August
Price:    $22 full / $15 concessions
Book:    https://www.patronbase.com/_TOI/Productions/OCG/Performances   

The performance on Tuesday 21 August will be audio-described for blind and partially sighted audience members.  

The perfect stage for student storytelling

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Aug 2012

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is adapted from the Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker, and concerns a group of Royal Marines who are guarding a group of convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales in the 1780s. 

One of the officers has the idea that theatre can revitalise and restore the human spirit and that putting on a play will allow the convicts to enter a world outside themselves. He has two copies of Georges Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer which he starts rehearsing.  This however meets with fierce opposition from the other officers who are dead against allowing the convicts such liberties. 

Nevertheless the officer perseveres and continues to rehearse the play, overcoming numerous obstacles until they reach opening night.  The play canvasses many themes such as love, redemption, the power of the human spirit not to be broken, justice and authority in the penal colonies. But above all that there is a creative element in everyone, no matter what their situation. 

It’s a drama of epic proportions with its many layers, multiple characters and numerous settings, and as such is an ideal vehicle for final year students at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School to use for their graduation production.  

The officer rehearsing the play for the first time is played out with lots of humour, while the second rehearsal is filled with tension and dramatic climaxes as the other officers intimidate the convicts. 

There are strong individual performances from the students and moments of heartfelt poignancy as the developing relationships amongst the convicts are played out under the authoritarian stare of the officers.  And convicts, when being actors, are shown to be no different to actors now – temperamental and tempestuous, and storming out of rehearsals. 

The innovative setting, in the round, is simple yet very effective as is the lighting and typically Australian soundscape, all combining to make this production highly entertaining yet also thought provoking.


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Playing with redemption

Review by John Smythe 17th Aug 2012

It is a given of history that the colony of New South Wales – and Australia – was build by the labour of convicts who, in the late 18th century, were transported from England for the good of both countries.  

Less certain was the question of whether convicts could be rehabilitated through such humanising enterprises as putting on a play. Some thought they were irredeemable and punishment was all they deserved. Besides, there was a colony to be built, farms to be established and worked, discipline to be maintained, floggings and hangings to be carried out as examples to others …  

It was a challenge, then, for 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to attempt – in 1789; the year after the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay – a production of George Farqhuar’s 1706 Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer.

Our Country’s Good is British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of Australian writer Thomas Keneally’s historical novel The Playmaker. South African Geoffrey Hyland has directed it as one of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School’s graduation productions (the other being Skellig, at Bats until Saturday). The common denominator is our colonial heritage.

The design elements are superb. Joshua Foley’s in-the-round set comprises a square of boardwalks surrounding a sandpit, a few slatted boxes, a single gum tree trunk / flag pole / flogging post and, behind the seating, dozens of ropes simultaneously suggesting more trees, the threat of the noose and the spread of civilisation. All is judiciously lit by lit by Janis Cheng, who captures the bright Australian light to ideally serve each sequence without being obtrusive.  

Hugh Tucker’s rich sound design uses didgeridoo to evoke the larger land beyond, gradually bringing in woodwind, drums and brass to imprint the colonial force. The costumes, designed by Daphne Eriksen and constructed by a large and dedicated team, are superb, accurately contrasting the uniforms and ragged clobber while uniformly dirty shoes betray the relative lack of class.

Nine of the 11 actors play two or three roles, usually on opposite sides of the ruling or ruled divide (adding particular challenges to the costume designs, I imagine, where quick changes are required). There is not a weak link: all acquit themselves splendidly with well-wrought work.

As 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark, Cameron Jones makes a compelling transition from love-sick idealist, through patiently pragmatic director, to lover of his leading lady; seduced by the all-too-humanising value of his Quixotic enterprise. 

Deborah Rea is thoughtfully focused as the conflicted Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, committed to the country’s good in the face of redneck and factional opposition, even if he’d rather be back at his cosy English farm.

While the other women playing male officers serve largely as extras in those roles, with little opportunity to register clear characters, their female convicts (shades of Steve Gooch’s Female Transport) are strongly delineated.

Having briefly established, as Meg Long, the general lot of women trying to survive let alone advance themselves, Ria Simmons tracks Mary Brenham’s gradual progress from nervous would-be actress to fully engaged leading lady (albeit physically engaged with her director, Ralph) with flair.  

Carrie Green burns slowly and flares suddenly as the condemned-to-hang Liz Morden, finding some sense of self worth through the play and finally finding the voice that saves her by telling the truth.

Alice Canton’s dream reader Dabby Bryant is much more stroppy in her defensive antagonism towards the play until she sees its potential for liberation.

An intriguingly complex relationship plays out between Tai Berdinner-Blades’ pragmatically sexual Duckling Smith and Andrew Paterson’s tormented Midshipman Harry Brewer, haunted by those he has caused to be hanged. Paterson also plays John Arscott, a volatile convict determined to be in the play, and an irritatingly twee – and constantly pissed? – Captain Jeremy Campbell.

Jonathan Power contrasts a strong Captain David Collins with a wonderfully realised Robert Sideway, desirous of being a star of stage in the mould of Drury Lane’s David Garrick.

Manuel Solomon complements his Captain Watkin Tench with a richly rendered Black Caesar from Madagascar. (He is also credited as An Aboriginal Australian, which I am told came through as one of the voice-overs talking about ancestors, but I could not discern a credible Aboriginal accent at all.)

The sadistic Scotsman Major Robbie Ross is so well complemented by the timid and apologetic Irish hangman, Ketch Freeman, that it’s a surprise to realise Richard Munton plays them both.

The opposition the Reverend Johnson has to the play is nicely contrasted by Tom Eason in his convict John Wisehammer, intrigued by language and the determined provider – and deliverer, at last – of a prologue more appropriate to this production of The Recruiting Officer.

In his programme note, Geoffrey Hyland says he has chosen to consider the play through the lens of ‘dreams’, which may be the reason I find its central discussion of the redemptive power of theatre, and the potential comedy of the convicts playing toffs who are as morally dodgy as them, to be somewhat elusive in his production.

The build-up to the play within the play is so compelling, however, that I would gladly have stayed on to see it actually played out, despite having been there three hours (including interval). The icing on the cake is the splendidly ingenious white wigs and tri-corn hats the convicts don just before they exit to enter. 

That I would now like to read the Keneally novel is another mark of this production’s value. And having now seen Our Country’s Good and Skellig, I look forward to this intake’s Go Solo season (3-13 October) confirming another crop of very talented theatre practitioners is about to join the professional throng.

That large cast quality professional theatre is relatively rare these days is another reason not to miss Our Country’s Good. (Ends Saturday 25 August.)


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