‘The Greeks believed that it was a citizen’s duty to watch a play. It was a kind of work in that it required attention, judgment, patience, all social virtues.’
It was the Australian author Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel, ‘The Playmaker’ which inspired Timberlake Wertenbaker to dramatise the true story of the convicts’ staging of the Irish writer George Farquar’s 1706 farce, ‘The Recruiting Officer.’ This revival is topical at a time when education in Britain’s overcrowded prisons is at low ebb and people who run drama projects are patronised. Whilst more liberal attitudes prevail today, the debates in the play on finding the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation are still as relevant as at the time when the play is set.
The context for the play is Australia in the late 18th century which was partly a dumping ground for the refuse of Britain’s prisons. The first convict ship arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, crammed with England’s outcasts; most were from the lower end of the criminal scale: petty thieves or pickpockets, including an 87 year old woman who stole a biscuit and a young Irish man who refused to work for nothing.
Peter McIntosh’s bright, colourful backdrop: a cyclorama of red earth and bright sun backdrop is a nod to Aboriginal art and the stereotypical image of a foreign landscape. Enter the ‘Aborigine’ as the politically correct programme describes the almost silent observer. He watches and dances and says the odd word when he foretells his own death from being infected by the foreigners’ disease. It is a strange policy of colour blind casting when the aboriginal is played by a white actor and the Governor, Captain Philip ( Cyril Nri) and Captain Tench ( Jonathan Livingstone) are played by black actors. Perhaps, Nri’s authoritative stage presence is meant to feel like a comment on slavery and Empire.
In contrast, the revolving stage bursts open to reveal prisoners in the bowels of the ship. Their visceral words evoke the sense of rough justice by the military during the journey.
Once in Australia, the idealistic governor maintains that the convicts are there to ‘create a new society’. Their involvement in theatre would act as a humanising force. He therefore supports Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who is looking for some meaning to his own life, in staging the play, even though he knows he risks trouble by offending the more conservative elements of the military. With the objective to celebrate the King’s birthday in 1789, the transported convicts rehearse Farquhar’s classic farce, which thus became the first play ever to be staged in the penal colony.
Whilst much of what follows is comic, as is inevitable when a group of novices fumble to learn new skills, we are never allowed to forget the harsh real-life entertainment of floggings and hangings is forever in the wings and on the stage. Nevertheless, jokes about acting, theatregoing and more serious asides about women’s bodies and the injustice of punishment abound:
‘People who can’t pay attention shouldn’t go to the theatre’
Traditionally, there has been a doubling of roles that sees prisoners become jailers in the simple act of donning a red coat or a hat but not here.
The play-within-the-play is reminiscent of Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with Ashley McGuire’s Dabby Bryant’s feisty performance as the garrulous ‘Shitty Meg’ living up to Bottom’s confidence. But Meg is no fool as she draws the audience’s attention to serious themes, such as the relationship between reality and imagination. As Meg yearns for a simpler life back in Devon, she creates a moment of terrific vulnerability as she realises she can never go home. Other memorable roles are Jodie McNee’s brash Liverpudlian, Liz Morden, whose punkish agression is finally reduced to quiet dignity in playing a gentlewoman in the show; Lee Ross, as the merry pickpocket, Robert Sideway; and Tadgh Murphy’s characterisation of gentle hangman Ketch Freeman is a wonderful contrast Paul Kay’s Midshipman, Harry Brewer’s neediness and rapid decline as his conscience rides into madness, unconvincing though it seems.
As the narrative unfolds we discover some of the convict’s backstories. Victims of circumstance, they turned to crime as a basic means of survival.
We also have an insight into Lieutenant Ralph Clark who sits every night at his desk and writes faithfully in his diary to his beloved wife back home. His diary extracts are filled with prim and proper thoughts , and yet, in secret, Ralph masturbates all over these tidy diaries, packed with ‘confessions’ that are really just further layers of pretence. As Ralph writes, shadowy, sexy scenes play out behind his tent. At one point, Mary, who Ralph is growing close to, sings a haunting melody just beyond his door. When Mary and Ralph finally admit their feelings for each other, Ralph confesses he has never seen a woman naked, not even his wife. A reminder of the nonsensical role-play required of a ‘gentleman’ in 18th Century Britain.
Cerys Matthews blends folk, spiritual and original music (much of it beautifully sung by Josienne Clarke) to reflect the changing emotions and creates a timeless quality. The refrain of ‘We left our country for our country’s good’ remains haunting.
Nadia Fall’s production progresses slowly though nonetheless ineffectual. We are left with the notion that, in putting on a play, the convicts can aspire to be something other than what they are perceived to be. When the play was first performed, it was considered a thinly veiled attack on Margaret Thatcher’s cuts to the arts and the general lack of funding theatres received . More importantly, Fall delivers the idea that the theatre provides a voice and purpose, and serves as a humanising force of compassion, cooperation and creativity.
All said, it was a successful production though the National missed an opportunity here by staging the production in the Olivier. A smaller space such as the Dorfman would have been preferable to convey a sense of the intimidating space. Then the full impact of the play’s purpose would be sealed. After all, it is designed to force us to think 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.