Our Country’s Great, National Theatre (Olivier), London

Cerys Matthews’ music lends beauty to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about the 1st convicts to land in Australia

From left: Jason Hughes as Ralph Clark, Jodie McNee as Liz Morden, Peter Forbes as Robbie Ross in 'Our Country's Good' at the National Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir©Alastair Muir

From left: Jason Hughes as Ralph Clark, Jodie McNee as Liz Morden, Peter Forbes as Robbie Ross in ‘Our Country’s Good’ at the National Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir

Botany Bay, 1788, and a lone Aboriginal Australian — half-naked, lithe — watches the Initial Fleet drift “on to the sea”. He is bemused by the interlopers with their half-dead prisoners and beastly ways. He is in tune with his landscape. He dances.(Choreography: Arthur Pita.)

Our Country’s Excellent is a play about a play performed by convicts in Australia. On one level, it is an optimistic ode to the redemptive energy of theatre.

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But optimism is in small supply at the Olivier. In Nadia Fall’s production the mood is punishing, corporal and capital — spare the noose and ruin the convict — and the gore is quite graphic. So graphic that paler shades are lost: so what if a young lieutenant misses his mrs? Who cares about kangaroos?

Beauty is not lost, even so. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s text contains practically no music, but Cerys Matthews has supplied some — and Josienne Clarke sings like a haunted angel. It is spellbinding.

Likewise the design by Peter McKintosh: blood-red, sea-blue, it goes up and down and round and round a strip of canvas hangs in the centre — a ship’s sail, dirty tents, a curtain for a theatre and the backdrop, a painting by Shane Pickett — an exquisite Aboriginal landscape which the stinking, pink-skinned colonials are not equipped to read.

It is a fine ensemble. Tadhg Murphy’s hangdog snitch is a terrific bag of angst Lee Ross plays Robert Sideway with excellent mirth and dignity Jodie McNee’s Liz Morden is a study in hurt and Debra Penny’s witty “Shitty” Meg lives up to her name in style.

It isn’t steamy in between the young lieutenant (Jason Hughes) and the convict Mary Brenham (Caoilfhionn Dunne), and more’s the pity. Each characters are cut from muted cloth, but if we are to think in the miracle powers of plays, their passion have to be passionate.

Fall is right to emphasise the nasty bits because the nice, hopeful bits — when a flogged man says, “when I say Kite’s lines I overlook everything else”, for instance — frequently sound trite. Right here is a almost excellent production of a nearly fantastic play.

To October 17, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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Section: Arts