From the first moments Nadia Fall’s production sets brutal, bullying humanity against a hot, strange, majestic Australian dawn. A lone aborigine watches, silent on a great dark bare plain , as the land heaves beneath him and becomes the deck of a prison-ship of half-starved, flogged inmates and resentful red-coated marines. Up comes the light, and we and the prisoners blink, half-afraid, as Peter McKintosh’s great red-and-gold diorama blazes at us.
I fell in love a few years ago with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s marvellous, passionate play (based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, about a real event of 1788 when a colony of deported British prisoners put on a play – George Farquar’s arch comedy The Recruiting Officer, under the direction of a theatre-loving lieutenant of Marines. That was Alistair Whatley’s shorter, less richly cast version at the Rose, with some deft cast-doubling (ten players, 23 onstage here). Love all over again, last night. The only thing I missed – as Gary Wood’s nimble, mysterious Aborigine speaks only once – was the plaintive questioning line on his first seeing the ship and its brutalized inmates “Is it a dream that has lost its way?” .

Which question encapsulates the whole theme: that a highly evolved, theatrically cultured 18c society still deported thousands for trifling thefts, some pitifully old or young, often girls sold in childhood.
Wertenbaker makes the creation of the Farqhar comedy a symbol of the possibility that well-ordered language and imagination can free and transform the most brutalized. ‘Theatre is an expression of civilization” is a fancy of the idealistic governor: Cyril Nri, nicely combining thoughtful liberalism with an arms-length detachment from the chaotic directorial and personal struggles of the ambitious, lonely Lieut. Ralph (Jason Hughes). At one point, insisting on the casting of the terrifyingly farouche Liz (Jodie McNee, spikily ginger, her whole body always seething with anger) he says that they must “make an example” of her. “By hanging?” asks Ralph, since there has been a lot of this for thefts of food since they arrived. “No. By redemption” says Nri.

Cerys Matthews’ music, drawing on folk, blues and aboriginal instruments, frames the action with yearning emotional power; the nobility of the text strikes with additional power when set, tightly, against fragments of harsh back-story and the horrible brutalities and humiliations meted out by the contemptuous Major Ross (Peter Forbes). But there is saving comedy in the rehearsals and the ensemble of prisoners is tremendous: notably AshleyMcGuire a memorable stroppy Devon wench as Dabby, and Matthew Cottle beautifully judged as Wisehammer, branded a criminal for his Jewishness. Small beautiful moments reaffirm the redemptive theme: the savage Liz suddenly quieting when the Lieutenant apologizes for interrupting her; the huge angry Arscott (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) clinging to his part because of the liberation it brings “I’m not myself, I don’t hate, I’m Kite and I’m in Shrewsbury”.

Prison arts, prison theatre, are forever under attack even today by panicking Home Secretaries. The timelessness of this play’s insistence on the value of “refined literate language,well balanced lines expressing sentiments they are not used to” is striking. From the pioneering days of the London Shakespeare Workout in Brixton and Pentonville to Inside Out and Clean Break today, the truth and the need for that go on.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 17 Oct
rating four    4 Meece Rating


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