Amy Kersey and Chris Rodwell. Photo - Amani Faiz
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of the Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker retells true events of Australian history: in an effort to boost morale and civilise the rough-and-tough convict thugs, Governor Arthur Phillip allows the performance of an old-fashioned British comedy of manners, directed by a soldier and performed by the prisoners.
Setting aside the cringe-worthy irony of a great Australian tale being first written by a British citizen of Basque origin and first performed to great success in the United Kingdom, this is an intriguing and enjoyable story. The play recounts the tough lives of the first white Australians settling in the new country and offers an interesting exploration of why we see theatre, why we tell stories and how they can help us deal with the everyday struggles we face.
Arguably our Australian colonial history and convict past is a fairly tired and overdone topic - flogged to death, if you will. This script however manages to bring fresh and entertaining insight into the story of our First Fleeters, and maybe this is because it is written by someone observing Australia’s colonial past as an outsider looking in.
The Group Theatre is responsible for previous productions in Sydney that were well-known for bursting with energy and in-your-face action – both Hurlyburly and their stage adaptation of The Lord of the Flies were sell-out successes. It’s surprising then that this production is fairly tame and monotonous, with soft, flat performances from most performers that lacked the light and shade needed to keep the audience on their toes. Often the motivation of the characters was unclear too, with large slabs of dialogue coasting along without much direction.
Much of the stage design was quite old-fashioned and the overall aesthetic felt a little like a school-play. Actors also struggled with a cumbersome sailcloth several times throughout the performance which was a distraction. It would be intriguing to see this production performed in a more stylised, abstract fashion. Forget the timber deck and ship’s mast, perhaps with some snazzy, fantastical lighting states and costuming that is more suggestive rather than the full realistic getup this play could have felt more potent and relevant to today. Perhaps not, and a more naturalistic design does indeed serve the story best. But more energy, more juice and more variation from the performers was what was really needed. For a rough-and-tough, grimy Australian past, the production overall was a bit of a yawn.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company and The Group Theatre present
OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Adapted from the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally
Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre | 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Season: Saturday 26 July- Saturday 23 August
Times: Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm
Tickets: Adult $35, Conc $30, Preview $25