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Category: Our Country’s Good

Born this way

Kathryn O’Reilly has returned to Out of Joint to give a widely-praised performance as the ferocious, damaged, and very funny Liz Morden in Our Country’s Good. Here she talks about her character, the play’s messages and her own experiences of the power of theatre.

 “Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal”. Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)

It can take one person to help change someone’s life, or steer them in the right direction. When I was at school, and they were trying to chuck me out, I went to my first drama teacher for help. The head of the board of Governors asked me, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” “An actress” I replied. The head scoffed and said “I suppose we think we have another Emma Thompson on our hands.” My drama teacher was very encouraging and I found drama such a positive way to channel my energies.

Theatre has had a massive and positive impact on my life. Prior to training at LAMDA, I spent years working in forum theatre and role playing in equality and diversity work. I worked for the NHS, the Police, and ran my own children’s theatre company.

Our Country’s Good asks massive questions about society, crime and humanity that I find absolutely fascinating. Its great theme for me is the power of theatre in changing, inspiring and educating lives. I believe passionately in this power of the theatre and the arts.

I play a character called Liz Morden, a convict who comes across as pretty intimidating when she first joins the cast of The Recruiting Officer in the play. Liz had virtually no chance from the off. Her journey from victim to perpetrator is incredibly interesting. Of course, not every person who suffers like Liz turns to crime and ends up behind bars but it is easy to see how it happens. And it makes sense to Liz too: by the time in the play when she is arrested for stealing food, and put into prison within the colony – a prison within a prison – and facing death, it seems inevitable, as if everything in her life has been leading up to this.

Liz’s story is timeless. She was born into extreme poverty, with a broken home life and no formal education. A lack of positive role models, of love, care, affection and encouragement. She has to grow up very quickly. She’s betrayed and abandoned by her family. She enters a life of crime. Sentenced and imprisoned.

When she was still a child, her own father betrayed her: he shifted the blame to her very publically for a theft in order to save his own skin. She was beaten and humiliated in the street , with no one running to her aid, and so this traumatising experience further fuelled in her feelings of low self-esteem, a confused sense of identity, fear and rage and . In that moment of betrayal, her chances and choices in life were suddenly and dramatically shrunk. Liz also feels deeply unattractive. Her own brother tells her to her face she is ugly and he plants the seed that she can earn money by going on the game, suggesting that, after all, most men don’t look at the mantelpiece. This is further rammed home by her pimp who tells her as she ages to supplement, or “spice”, her dwindling earnings by following in her father’s footsteps to be a “nibbler”, or small-time thief.

It’s easy to see, with this kind of cycle, how the idea came about that crime was (to use modern parlance) in the genes; that there was a criminal mind, even a “criminal class”. In the play, we hear Captain Tench describe the convict’s as “born that way”. Back then, when Our Country’s Good is set, the Government dealt with this criminal class by initiating the biggest single exile in history, loading them on a ship and sending them half way around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. Thinking this would eradicate them. Liz is described as “foul mouthed and lower than an animal” by officers. Times change, but the language used to write off a whole section of society doesn’t sound all that alien to our own era.

But Liz has a hero, in the figure of the progressive Governor of the colony, Captain Phillip. Whether you believe “act like a king and people will treat you like a king” or “treat someone like a king and they will act like one”, belief and behaviour has to start somewhere. Phillip believes this. That we are born free, that everyone is equal – and then life happens. “Treat her as a corpse and of course she will die” he says. Instead, “try a little kindness”. As I said, it can take one person.

Liz was played by Linda Bassett in the original production 25 years ago (no pressure!). I see her as my most prestigious role to date and I’ve had to dig deep to portray her. As an actor you have to find the character you’re playing, from the text, all the facts about them, the events, given circumstances, goals and obstacles, what other characters say about them, the language your character uses, all these go into building your creation. Working with Max Stafford-Clark he also requires us to carry out research, reading books and reporting back on interesting findings, he also sets improvisations as well as facilitating a delving into one’s own personal stories from which a parallel can be drawn and used effectively. For example, to help me find the sense of empowerment Liz gets from taking part in a play, Max asked me in rehearsals “when did you fall in love with theatre?”. I was thirteen, playing a Jet Girl in West Side Story (with my first drama teacher directing it). It was completely thrilling.

I love Liz. She has integrity, humour, and she’s a survivor. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting her too.

Follow Kathryn on Twitter @kathryn1oreilly 

Legacy – an actor on the pressures of making a classic new

Our Country’s Good cast member John Hollingworth has written this thoughtful piece for us. Recommended.

John Hollingworth in Our Country’s Good

Legacy. Post-Olympics the papers are full of the word and, as we present Our Country’s Good to the national press in Birmingham, so are my thoughts about the play.

This is Max’s third production of the play. He originally staged it at the Royal Court in 1988, reviving it in the West End and on Broadway; then it was toured in 1998 in a co-production with the Young Vic. Out of Joint have asked us to write something about the rehearsal process for their education pages but I found myself thinking more about the nature and inherent pressures of re-staging a modern classic.

It’s becoming something of a career trait, this revival business.  I was part of the National Youth Theatre’s re-staging of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 2000. I reprised the roles created by the much-loved and sadly missed Bob Peck: John Browdie and Mulberry Hawk.  It was a fantastic experience with a great company of actors, most of whom went on to drama school and professional careers, but wherever we went, the spectacle of the original hovered over us.  A woman came up to me after a performance in Los Angeles, clasped my hand and thanked the company for ‘letting me see it one more time before I die.’  ‘But’, she added, ‘whyever get rid of that wonderful wooden stage?’  The original had unfolded on a double deck of latticed wood, something like the deck of an Elizabethan ship, but ours, alas for the woman in question, did not.

Since I became a professional actor, I’ve been in revivals of other modern classics: Frank McGuiness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at the Hampstead; Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London on tour for the National; and most recently Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar.  All faced the same questions: how do we respond to previous productions?  Is it cheating to do what they did?  Can people remember the original productions anyway (like my accoster in LA)?

John Hollingworth in Our Country’s Good

Max has been naturally very alive to such questions.  In our first week of notes (when the director gives us feedback on a performance) in Bolton he recounted a similar experience to the one I had in LA. A woman of similar age tentatively approached our scribbling director and thanked him for bringing Our Country’s Good to Bolton. She said she’d loved Out of Joint’s previous shows Mixed Up North and Bang Bang Bang and was thrilled to see Timberlake’s play again, but what on earth had he done with a certain character?  So fixed was the woman’s understanding of the play that anything but slavish reproduction of exactly what happened before was anathema.

Max has warned us that we’ll be treading on people’s cherished dreams of the show as it was in 1988 and 1998.  A few hardcore fans have even been to Bolton in order to be the first to “collect the set” and see all three Stafford-Clark productions of the piece (at the time of writing the company have no plans to release a commemorative t-shirt.)  But I notice we are billed at the St James Theatre in London as the 25th Anniversary Production, which sounds pretty definitive.

Last night, after a performance in Birmingham we had one of the company’s regular audience Q&A sessions. When someone asked what was different about Max’s approach this time his reply was, “nothing”. He didn’t set out to resolve problems with previous productions or design himself out of previous stagings, but simply to encounter the text again in the rehearsal room and stage it as best he could with the cast he’s chosen.

Given Out Of Joint’s recent funding cut Max concedes that there’s a financial imperative to mounting this show but in the rehearsal room he’s been driven by a love of the play and a sincere feeling that it should be seen by a new generation of theatregoers.  I raced to see Out Of Joint’s production of Top Girls when it transferred from Chichester to London last year for precisely that reason. I’d never seen the play and jumped at the chance to see its original director revisit the text and reconnect with it. Sitting in the audience felt like an event as well as a night at the theatre.

Matthew Needham and John Hollingworth in Our Country’s Good

The literary critic Harold Bloom talked about something he called “the anxiety of influence” – the difficulty for writers to overcome an awareness of what’s been done before and to make something new. And in the first weeks of rehearsal for Our Country’s Good I had the actorly equivalent.  Now of course it’s much easier to be an actor than a writer.  We’ve no blank page to face: the words are there for you and you’ve got to find the best way to serve them.  However, I’ve been struck by the ownership surrounding Timberlake’s play.  So many people have seen it, read it, studied it, sat in a theatre for the first time ever at a performance of it.  For so many, the very name conjures furtive teenage romances and ticking down the school clock until adult life begins.  It’s become a rite of passage as well as a canonical, curricular play.  Some of the teachers who came to watch rehearsals even gave us notes, so clear was their vision of the play!  All of which baggage made it more difficult than I’ve ever found before to get up and say the lines as if they’d come from me, and not from a book.

Timberlake’s response to this feeling of baggage and predecessors was “don’t be so respectful of the text, enjoy yourself more”.  Max’s response came from his past at the Royal Court, the mission statement of which had been articulated by his predecessor Lindsay Anderson as ‘presenting new plays as classics and classics as new plays’. That’s been a sound lodestar by which to navigate the revival.  Timberlake’s play has gone from new play to modern classic in twenty five years.  Max has set about it with the same rehearsal strategy of improvisations, fact-finding exercises and status games that he’d employ in rehearsing any new text.  My roles have been played by fantastic actors before me – Ron Cook in the first production. But I’ve forgotten about who and what came before and got on with having fun playing what is a physical and emotional gym of a piece.

We’ve had three weeks of performances in Bolton so far, and have just begun weekly touring in Birmingham. Only this afternoon Max made his final tweaks and blocking changes before we go before the first of the national press tonight.  It’ll be interesting to see how they respond.  Wish me luck – but just don’t mention Ron Cook!


Songs and Poems

Actors’ Songs

We asked actors on twitter whether they listen to music before going on stage, and if so what helps them get in the right mood or headspace. You can find their replies, plus a link to a Spotify playlist, here. It ranges from classical to the Beastie Boys. Replies included:

“I once played a rancid, racist thug and got myself wound up with Asian Dub Foundation’s Fortress Europe” @robertsoftley

“Got the civil war, mudered father, blood-lust stirrings to play Richard in Henry VI using Arcade Fire’s Intervention.” @andycurry1

“I make playlists from the period or for each character. Those playlists are as good as production stills to reminisce to.@flisswalton

Convict’s poems

Our co-producing theatre for Our Country’s Good, the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, host live poetry events themed to their shows.

Dave Jones brought together poems inspired by the play, including those directly about and by convicts, and these were read by cast-members of the show. Dave has kindly pulled them together into a document,and has supplied notes on their backgrounds too.


Building the set for Our Country’s Good

Our cast have had the rare advantage of being able to spend the final two weeks of rehearsal on the set, on stage at the Octagon Theatre Bolton. Designed by Tim Shortall (who also designed our productions of Top Girls and The Big Fellah, as well as the recent West End La Cage Aux Folles and Sweet Charity) the set was built in the Octagon’s scenic workshop. Acting construction supervisor Pete Rimmer talks about preparing a set for touring, and there’s timelapse footage of the set being installed.

Videos – Actors on researching and rehearsing Our Country’s Good

Kathryn O’Reilly takes a break from rehearsals to talk about crime, punishment and the long sea voyage of the First Fleet. Her character, Liz Morden, comes from various prototypes. One is Nancy Turner, a 21-year-old servant who was tried at Worcester in 1785 for stealing clothes to the value of 40 shillings. She was sentenced to transportation for seven years.


In Our Country’s Good, convicts put on a play. Ciarán Owens and Helen Bradbury talk about meeting an ex-prisoner who discovered acting in prison and is now a professional actor.


Designing the sound for Our Country’s Good

We spoke to Andy Smith about designing the sound for Our Country’s Good, and how he became a sound designer.

What does a sound design do for a production?

A good sound design enhances the experience for the audience and immerses them in the production. I tend to favour a subtle sound design when it comes to atmospheric ambiences, as I don’t like to distract from the dialogue. In Our Country’s Good a lot of the scenes take place outdoors and it would be quite dull to have no atmosphere at all, so these will be the scenes when Australia is alive around the actors.

Music is also important. It can be used as an emotional or atmospheric scene setter, or a way of suggesting to the audience the period the play is set in. For Our Country’s Good I’ve been listening to some amazing aboriginal traditional music, it’s really evocative. There won’t be music for every scene – it’s all about keeping it interesting and varied.

How far in advance do you start to work on a production?

I start thinking about the design when I first get the script. I read the play so I know what I’m dealing with; then I’ll go through it again slowly highlighting the stage-directed sounds and other points at which I think sound could be used. This is usually before any design meetings take place, so that any ideas can be talked about at that early stage.


Where do you source sound effects from?

I have quite a large library of sounds gathered over the years. They range from sounds sourced from sound effect collections and bought sounds, to sounds that I’ve created myself. No show is the same, so I am always on the lookout for new and better alternatives.

It can be necessary to create new sounds when there is something so specific to the piece that you’re unable to source it. For Our Country’s Good I’ve got an idea where I’m getting all my sounds from but there could be something that comes out of rehearsals.

More often than not, sounds that involve cast members offstage will need pre-recording, as the actors may be unable to get to where the sound needs to come from at that point in the production.

Does Our Country’s Good present any unusual or tricky challenges?

One of the first things Max told me was that there are many different types of Cockatoo and Kookaburra in south west Australia so I’ve got my work cut out trying to source them!

The challenge will be to help the audience know where we are in each scene without becoming too distracting. Also we have scenes at both night and day so along with Jo Town’s lighting, the audio atmosphere needs to change to reflect these.

Aside from sounds specifically required by the script, how do you and the director decide what is needed?

Max is very good at letting designers know exactly what he wants while allowing freedom to bring ideas of your own to the table. When I worked on Bang Bang Bang [a play about human rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of Congo] last year, he and Stella were keen to use a specific genre of music, so I looked at lots of music around that genre to choose what would work in which particular moment.

For the atmospheric sounds I managed to get hold of recordings from the places in Congo where the piece was set. I then designed a more elaborate soundscape based around the initial recordings and presented them to Max. He was very encouraging and most of the design made it into the final production.

A stage direction that specifies something simple like ‘a gunshot is heard’ or ‘a telephone rings’ is pretty self explanatory. When you are given a direction that just tells you where you are, it is open to your interpretation as to how you create the soundscape. I’ll create something, then run it by the director for their approval.

How did you get into sound design?

I have always been interested in sound. I was fascinated by my dad’s music and stereo collection when I was a little boy and have always taken a keen interest in music. At school I was really into drama and did sound for my GCSE drama exam, then went on to do TV and radio production at college.

Then I did a contemporary theatre degree where I was the only person on the course interested in the technical side. I did lots of audio and visual creative stuff there, and knew I wanted to do that sort of thing professionally. I was lucky enough to be given a chance at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton and have been their resident Sound Designer (and Chief LX) for the last 11 years!

I’ve been in bands and worked at loads of festivals and live gigs too, and have done lots of studio recordings, so my work is very varied and keeps me interested.



Our guest Sarah Eve on actions, quizzes, and something called the “fucking game”

When I saw the Our Country’s Good open rehearsals advertised on Twitter, I jumped at the opportunity to see Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint at work. Having heard all the horror stories imaginable of the dreaded rehearsal room, I wanted to see what is expected of professional actors for myself.

Max began by welcoming us to what was the first day of a paying open rehearsal in England, and addressed the fact that open rehearsals are a way of funding theatre as well as educating. I really hope that other companies see the benefits both financially and educationally, as I can’t tell you how insightful it was to watch actors playing parts and working with a director you can only dream of, and with no pretence or façade.

There is a scene early in Our Country’s Good where Ralph has to audition convicts to be in his play. Max told us, “Directors know when you walk through the door whether they like you or not,” joking with the actors, “You’re all here because I chose you!” The cast then discussed whether they can tell when a director likes them in an audition, stating that they sometimes get a good vibe, or that the directors can be bluffing. Max revealed that he would “rather have an actor who is 7/10 talented, but enthusiastic about the play” – giving us all hope!

This was only the second rehearsal, so the actors were obviously not on their feet yet: Up to two weeks is spent “actioning” the text round a table. [Actioning is a process where every line an actor says is given an “action” – a transitive verb – that describes what their character is trying to “do” to the person they are speaking to by saying the line.]

The actors began to read, stating their action before delivering each line. Max would ask “which action do you prefer? Can you think of something else? What was the action for that last line?” What I found interesting was that these actions had already changed from yesterday’s first rehearsal, and that the actors were already using accents and gestures to find the right characterisations. Helen Bradbury, who is playing Dabby, said the line “I’ve seen load of plays”. This provoked a discussion as to whether the character was lying, bragging or exaggerating, and what theatres would have been near her at the time that she might have visited. This became clear: you have to know your character, the play and era inside out.

Next, the actors played the “fucking” game, where you insert the word “fucking” into any line in order to find emphasis or aggression. It was met with huge laughs from everyone, which created the right tone. Another technique involved Max picking a card from a deck beside him and showing all the actors apart from one. The actors had to play a direction subtly or strongly, depending on how high the card number was, with the remaining actor having to guess the number on the card from the intensity of the performance. (The direction was “fancy” and the card was an 8, which the actor guessed correctly. Max said that that strength of emotion was about right for the scene.)

Then we were put into quiz teams with the actors, who were friendly, funny and encouraging – with one saying “so you want to be an actor? Good girl!”. They didn’t seem fazed by having an audience in rehearsal. The quiz was on the history of Australia: the ships that the convicts arrived on, ratio of men to women, the year the last Aborigine died, and so on. I noticed just how many history books were on the table. Afterwards we were able to ask Max any questions we had.

I’m interested in political theatre, and there seem to be obvious criticisms of Thatcherism throughout the play, due to the funding cuts to the arts and the prison system during the eighties. Sharing similarities with today; making the play all the more relevant. I remember being moved by the letters from prisoners printed at the start of the published script of Our Country’s Good – they spoke of having felt free when involved in theatre, although they had not been so in years. A line from the play: “We may laugh, we may cry, we may even think” will hopefully be fulfilled in the production both directly through the action on the stage, but also indirectly through the need to fund theatre in order for society to realise that it is a necessity not just a frivolous expense. The main theme of the play is that of the redemptive power of theatre and I think that is why the play has kept touching actors and audiences alike. If the process alone can inspire, then the play itself will be incredible.

Sarah Eve is a third year training actor from Lancaster.

For more about rehearsal methods, see the books Page To Stage: Our Country’s Good; Taking Stock; and Letters to George, all available in our shop.

If you would like to support Out of Joint and be more involved, please consider becoming a Friend.

Revisiting and reviving

Max Stafford-Clark on directing tried and tested plays.

Most of the plays I’ve directed have been new plays, where the focus – especially the critical focus – is all on the play and its author. As the director your work is usually acknowledged with a cursory adverb – “ably directed by…” or “fluidly” perhaps. Whereas when you direct a classic, attention focuses far more on the interpretation. With Our Country’s Good I’m revisiting something that had a terrific impact the first time round, and I know that in a way this production will not have the same ability to surprise. But I go into it hoping that for young people, or anyone discovering it for the first time, the impact on them individually will be just as powerful.

The big difference in reviving a play is that you go into rehearsals knowing that it works. Or at least that it should work… People have asked what I’ll do differently but I don’t know that it works like that. I know more about Australian history this time, but you still start at the beginning with new actors.

Lucy Briers, Suranne Jones and Stella Gonet in rehearsal for Top Girls

This was true with Top Girls (which we revived last year), although I tried to cheat with one moment: there is a line in the play that Carole Hayman, who’d been in the original production, had  given a specific reading of that I’d loved and that I just couldn’t get the actress in the new production to get in the same way, and I couldn’t either. Carole came to see the play and we asked her to say the line but she couldn’t do it either. Perhaps I’d remembered it wrongly.

The idea for Our Country’s Good came when I was marooned in New York, having transferred Serious Money from off-Broadway where it had been a huge hit. It didn’t fare so well on Broadway. There’d been a black Monday and you just couldn’t have this comic approach to money that the play took. Each act of Serious Money ended with an obscene anthem by Ian Drury. I remember being in the theatre at the interval hearing a woman say “Well I did not understand one word of that and the only word I did understand I wouldn’t possibly repeat”.  My only friend was the theatre’s barmaid who gave me free whiskies. I was at a loose end. I couldn’t rehearse for more than 90 minutes a day or I’d trigger overtime and when we did rehearse we’d do so under a single lamp or we’d be charged for technicians.

With time on my hands I went to the booksellers Barnes and Noble, looking for a novel. I bought Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker and it turned out to be the kind of book you have to slow yourself down with, I was getting through it so fast. The idea occurred of a double header, consisting of The Recruiting Officer with a new play about how it came to be Australia’s first theatre production. I approached Timberlake, whose play The Grace of Mary Traverse Danny Boyle had directed at the Royal Court and which I’d liked very much, to make a play of the story.

Voyages of Discovery

Jon Bradfield on learning about the worlds behind our plays.

A ship from the First Fleet before departure in 1787

I think a defining aspect of Out of Joint’s shows is that, over the course of a couple of hours, they offer an overview of a world about which you might know little. (Last year’s play Bang Bang Bang, for example, gave clear and personal look at the lives and work of human rights defenders.) And, as a result, one of the most rewarding aspects of working with Out of Joint is that you become a student, even a “mini expert” in a field you’ve not encountered before.

I’ve just been typing up some notes for a programme article about the real life officers and convicts on whom the characters in Our County’s Good are based. The story of Mary (Dabby) Bryant strikes me as extraordinary. She was an unemployed 23-year-old who was tried in Exeter in 1786 for assault and highway robbery to the value of 12 shillings, 11 pence. Sentenced to hang, she was later reprieved and sentenced to transportation for seven years. With her husband and two children she escaped from Sydney in a stolen rowing boat and, after an epic journey of over 2000 miles, reached Jakarta where the Dutch Governor believed her story of shipwreck. He put her in a ship to Cape Town – where she had the bad luck to meet the Marines who were returning from service in New South Wales! She was rearrested, but back in London the writer James Boswell led a petition to Lord Sydney for a reprieve. She was pardoned, and returned to Cornwall where she lived to be an old woman. Boswell sent her a “pension” of 15 shillings a year.

What must it have been like, for the officers but especially the convicts, to have been transported on the First Fleet? To be sent to the other side of the world would surely have been as incomprehensible to them as it would be for us to be sent to a colony on Mars.

There’s a line in the play that stands out for me. It comes in a scene where the officers are debating the merits or otherwise of putting on a play with a cast of convicts, and the humanising influence it may have on them. Captain Tench, who is opposed to the project, says:

“We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature.”

I think this is the central idea, the hypothesis that the play goes on to challenge – I’ve used it on the leaflets we’re using to promote the show. It reflects a popular idea at the time (but still prevalent perhaps) that there is a “criminal class”.

Are these people, dragged from the slums of London and elsewhere, a different class, type, almost species of person from the upright officers? From you and me? Of course not. (In fact, another article I’ve commissioned will look at how theatre is used to great effect with prisoners and offenders today.) Our Country’s Good brings to mind one of those TV programmes where someone takes a group of delinquents and transforms them into a choir, giving them purpose and pride in the process. I mean that as a compliment. The complications and reversals of Our Country’s Good come about because, thanks to putting on a play together, the officers and convicts come to see the humanity in themselves and each other. Timberlake marks this change brilliantly: early in the play, she has the officers discussing a hanging in very casual, practical terms. But later, when Liz Morden is sentenced to be hanged, it is becomes a personal, humanitarian issue.

a female convict about to kiss a male naval officer on a poster for Our Country's GoodWhen we began to think of the poster image we might create for our publicity material, as well as rereading the play we looked at a lot of previous examples from the many productions there have been, professional, amateur and student. The majority feature either a noose, or chains or handcuffs, or perhaps a map of Australia made out of these objects. The logic is impeccable, but the images seemed to reflect the facts of the piece and not its heart. That’s why we wanted people on it – an officer and a convict, and the suggestion of their discovering a connection, a fellow humanity.

And yes, we wanted something a bit sexy. And that’s ok too. It’s a sexy, earthy play.

Jon is Marketing Manager at Out of Joint

A Dialogue With One’s Ghosts

Our Country’s Good is returning for more performances in 2014. Here is writer Timberlake Wertenbaker on love, death, trash romances and the inspirations behind her play.

Timberlake WertenbakerPlays have strange and complex ways of getting written, that often only become clear much later. It was interesting for me to go back to the time I wrote Our Country’s Good as Max Stafford-Clark and I were auditioning recently for his new production. I found myself remembering why some things had gone into the play and even into specific lines.

In the autumn of 1987, Max asked me if I would read Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker. He thought it could make an interesting play. I’d had some interest in prisoners – I’d seen and loved an early production by the Clean Break Theatre Company.  I’d met with them and written an article for a magazine (which then refused to publish the article because it was “too political.”) I was angry at the time and also felt I owed Clean Break something for their honesty and generosity, so there was some unfinished business there.  I also knew something about the 18th century from writing The Grace of Mary Traverse for the Royal Court.

In October 1987, not long after I read The Playmaker, my partner, the actor John Price, died.  He had a stroke and a week later, he was dead.  I didn’t think I could write, and my mind was barely working anyway: I’d gone into shock.

I told Max I loved the book but I didn’t think I could write a play at this time, and I knew too little about Australia. He led me to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, a detailed history of the country. It was there I found the title for Our Country’s Good.

To mourn someone, one has to internalise their life. I began to feel I wanted to write something that celebrated acting in some way. The theatre had been John’s passion and made him what he was. John loved the very process of acting and felt he was always learning and exploring. (He sometimes joked that if he hadn’t become an actor he might have accepted a career advisor’s suggestion that he become a policeman.) Acting had taken him all over the world and into great emotional depths.

In his last year, John toured with the English Shakespeare Company in Henry IV 1&2.  Sometimes I found myself in the men’s dressing room, watching the actors rush in and out to fetch something, or quickly mention an incident that had happened on stage.  I used some of that for the last scene of Our Country’s Good. And because John and I had met in rehearsals (with Shared Experience, and with my translations of Marivaux) I wanted to write about the strong emotional undercurrents that can occur during that process when life and a play become enmeshed.  I was also by then watching Max’s rehearsals of the Recruiting Officer. All this fed into the play.

It was a difficult time. I was living with memories. The reason that Dabby, in Our Country’s Good, remembers Bigbury Bay and not Cornwall (where the “real” Dabby came from) is because that is where I had spent some very happy times during the ESC tour. I had walked along the estuary and the beach and I felt I knew it well.  In such a way, one transforms one’s longing for a time that will never come again into someone’s homesickness and a character based on someone from Cornwall into a character from Devon.

Ian Redford as Harry Brewer and Ashley Miller as Duckling in the 1998 revival of Our Country’s Good (photo: John Haynes)

John died from a stroke.  Harry Brewer has a stroke in Keneally’s novel. I had to write about it. And I knew about what it means to try to keep someone alive by talking to them when they’re in a coma: the search for a flicker of response. It’s often dangerous to say “this directly inspired that”:  Needless to say, I’m not Duckling, and John (who was very beautiful) wasn’t Harry but that story in the play was influenced by my own experience.  I knew that one could be loving and yet very angry with a person who was dying – and I was obsessed with what it meant to have a stroke. “First fear, then a pain at the back of the neck. Then nothing. It’s dark. It’s dark,” says Harry, himself remembering the death of Thomas Barrett.  Writing can be a dialogue with one’s ghosts.

The death of a partner has a strange way of annihilating one’s own identity. A planned future is brutally taken away. I felt an empathy with the convicts’ own sense of annihilation as they were transported to a different life. Again, it’s a subterranean pull, a mixing of very different experiences that meet at one point.

It’s not all darkness of course. I remembered recently that my familiarity with criminal slang didn’t come from meticulous research, but because as an adolescent (and even later) I was an avid reader of Georgette Heyer. She wrote quite silly historical romances about handsome Byronic lords and feisty maidens, but she was phenomenally accurate with her 18th century research, including thieves’ cant. In all her stories there were highwaymen or thieves or lords pretending to be highwaymen. Having read almost every book she wrote, I knew the lingo.

The workshops for Our Country’s Good were in April 1988. I could just about function by then although I found it difficult to get to the workshops without getting lost.  These workshops would provide masses more information and inspiration as well as emotional support. I’ll never forget Fred Molina, who was in the April workshops, offering me parsley because he thought I looked anaemic.

When I began to write the play in May, everything went in: personal memories, things said and done in the workshops by Max and the actors, research and even current events. We were in the Thatcher era: educational activities for prisoners were being cut, and there was a lot of talk about innate criminality. I think this process is the same for every writer. Personal memories tangle with research and fact in ways that are not immediately clear. But perhaps because it was such a turbulent time for me personally, I find I can now remember it well and for some reason, talk about it for the first time.

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See Our Country’s Good in 2014: Croydon, Colchester, Bristol, Minneapolis, Toronto, Richmond, Brighton and Windsor. More here