JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE TEMPEST and OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 12.5.14. __________________________________________________
3 stars ***
IT’S NO SECRET that the Tron’s annual Mayfesto event runs on a very slender shoestring. Designed to celebrate and debate the possibilities of political theatre, it features more readings and discussions than fully staged productions, with a few visiting shows added for good measure.
What it has in abundance, though, is intellectual energy, and a willingness to look at familiar subjects from a radical angle. Hence this year’s theme of colonialism; for as others celebrate the idea of the Commonwealth in advance of the Glasow games, Mayfesto looks at the darker aspects of the colonial impulse, through the works of visiting companies like Zendeh and Tamasha, and through readings of – among others – plays by the great Martinique writer Aime Cesaire.
And Mayfesto opens , this week, with two mainstage student productions, co-produced with Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, of mighty plays that touch on the idea of colonisation – Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s great 1988 play Our Country’s Good, based on a Thomas Kenneally novel in which a group of desperate convicts at Botany Bay rehearse and perform George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Both staged on the same platform set – which can seem both like a ship, and like a rough stockade built on a strange shore – the plays echo one another in their sense of an indigenous people trampled and destroyed by incomers with an unquestioning sense of entitlement. In both productions, directed by Andy Arnold and Gerry Mulgrew respectively, a magnificent Renee Williams plays the aboriginal figure, baffled and disbelieving in Our Country’s Good, raging and rebellious as Shakespeare’s Caliban.
In truth, though, there’s no doubt that of the two plays, The Tempest has more to say about colonialism, even though it predates the great age of British Empire by two centuries. Andy Arnold’s stripped-down version lasts barely more than two hours, and sometimes makes heavy work of the play’s comic sequences. Yet with Rebecca Murphy providing a brisk Australian Prospero, and Williams’s unforgettable Caliban delivering the searing final words from Aime Cesaire’s anti-colonial version of the play, it raises some shudderingly deep questions about the idea of Prospero as hero; calmly assuming command of an island not his, and enslaving its sole inhabitant, as something much less than human.
Our Country’s Good, by contrast, is really a fine liberal play about the dehumanisation of the poor and desperate back in Britain, and the strange trope of penal policy by which they – and those guarding them – were sent to live out their lives on the other side of the earth. The story of the re-emergence of their humanity and potential through the staging of the play is a tremendously moving one, illuminated here by a terrific central performance from Jess Thigpen as wild Liz Morden. Yet what Our Country’s Good mainly achieves is to remind us that the dehumanisation of people seen as “other” takes many forms; and is as often a matter of class and wealth, as of foreign conquest, and the seizure of new territories in distant lands.
The Tempest and Our Country’s Good at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 16 & 17 May.