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Directing Our Country’s Good: An interview with Max Stafford-Clark

In 1988 Max Stafford-Clark directed the Royal Court Theatre premiere of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Here, nearly three decades later, the British Library talks to Stafford-Clark about the genesis of the play, his experiences as its director and what it still has to teach us.

British Library:

In your own words, what kind of play is Our Country’s Good?

Max Stafford-Clark:

Our Country's Good comes into the unknown story category. It’s a play based on a number of incidents that really took place in the infant convict colony in Australia, where the liberal governor, Governor Arthur Phillip, whose name is enshrined in mountains, rivers, towns and many monuments in Australia, thought it would be a good idea for the convicts to put on a play. The Recruiting Officer was chosen partly because it was the only play they had two copies of, but it was also one of the most popular plays of the 18th century – second only to Hamlet.

BL:

Where did you discover the story at the heart of Our Country’s Good?

MS-C

Thomas Keneally, the great Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, produced this book – The Playmaker – in which he imagined that the young second lieutenant Ralph Clark was in fact the producer/director of the play. In it he catalogues the convicts and their different crimes, the governor and the hostility of the officers to the idea of any kind of therapy or rehabilitation being offered to the convicts and the difficulty of actually getting the play staged.

Photographs of Our Country's Good (1988 premiere at the Royal Court Theatre)

Photographs of Our Country's Good (1988 premiere at the Royal Court Theatre)

Alphonsia Emmanuel and Jim Broadbent star as convict Duckling Smith and Midshipman Harry Brewer in the 1988 premiere of Our Country’s Good.

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BL:

What led you to develop an adaptation of The Playmaker?

MS-C:

It’s a bit of a long story, but I was in New York directing Serious Money, Caryl Churchill’s play about the 'Big Bang' [the deregulation of the financial markets, implemented by Margaret Thatcher in 1986]. It had been a big success and after Christmas it transferred to Broadway. But it was quite clear that the financial markets were no longer a laughing matter. There’d been a kind of Black Monday and people had lost a lot of money. The play was doomed. If I rehearsed for more than an hour and a half a day it triggered huge overtime payments and I couldn’t afford to use musicians or electricians. My Broadway career lasted five weeks exactly.

As I was forced not to work, I had time on my hands. I went to the big Barnes &Noble bookshop on 5th Avenue and I saw The Playmaker. I was attracted by the title and I knew that The Recruiting Officer had indeed been performed by a group of convicts. I bought a copy and found that I couldn’t put it down. I had to limit myself to 20 pages a day.

Half-way through reading I realised that Restoration plays involve much smaller casts than Shakespeare. I thought, well, if you double that-with-that and omit that character,then perhaps we could stage it with just a cast of ten. So I had the idea of commissioning a play based on The Playmaker and producing The Recruiting Officer alongside it.

I came back to London not much richer than when I set off, alas, but with something even better than that – which was a good idea.

The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar

The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar

Dramatis personae – a list of the play’s characters – from the first print edition of The Recruiting Officer.

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BL:

When did you involve Timberlake Wertenbaker?

MS-C:

I approached Timberlake when I returned to London. Gradually, the play came together. Rewriting went on all through rehearsals, right up to the first preview and beyond.

BL:

Our Country’s Good is often described as a ‘historical play’. What’s your take on this?

MS-C:

It is history and it is Keneally’s fiction brokered by Timberlake’s imagination. Even though most of the events and characters are certainly drawn from life and from history, it’s an act of imagination.

BL:

What are the challenges of staging a historical play like Our Country’s Good?

MS-C:

You’re trying to recreate a lost world. With any historical play that visits the past, you have to animate and engage with your contemporary audience.

It’s only recently that David Cameron’s government withdrew access to books for prisoners, so the idea that prisoners could be rehabilitated through culture, through theatre or through reading, is something that is still vaguely contentious. [In November 2013 Chris Grayling, then Justice Secretary, introduced a ban on sending books to prisoners; this ban was declared unlawful by the High Court in December 2014 and subsequently reversed.]

BL:

How important was historical research to you, Timberlake Wetenbaker and the cast of Our Country’s Good?

MS-C:

Research is hugely important in any play. Of course if you’re doing a modern play – let’s say about sexual abuse in professional football – then that’s something you can research here and now. You can talk to lawyers, to football managers, to victims and you can find materials to assist with constructing your play. If you’re staging a historical play then it’s that bit more difficult to gain access to that world.

Our Country’s Good brings an unknown story to life, or one that was certainly unknown in the 1980s. Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore was inspirational in this sense. What I hadn’t anticipated was that convict history is a blur – or had been until that point to most Australians. They were taught Tudor kings and queens, but they were not taught about their own convict origins as it was considered too shameful to be part of a proper course of academic study.

Manuscript notes for Our Country's Good

Manuscript notes for Our Country's Good

Evidence of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s research for the play: a list of 18th century criminal slang or ‘cant’.

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Usage terms © Timberlake Wertenbaker c/o The Agency (London) Ltd, 24 Pottery Lane, London W11 4LZ. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay

The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay

A list containing the names of convicts transported to Australia with the First Fleet, together with the date and length of their sentence. This page records a ‘Mary Branham’.

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BL:

You’re famous for your workshop and rehearsal methods, which you first developed with Joint Stock in the 1970s. Can you tell us about some of the methods used in rehearsals for Our Country's Good?

MSC

I certainly use improvisations a lot to fill in the back story. At the Royal Court, where we first rehearsed Our Country's Good, there is something called the sub-stage which is underneath the stage. It is not unlike the hold of a sailing ship. The actors were imprisoned down there for a day. They had to persuade their way out by seducing the officers who were also cast on the day.

For the actor playing the character of Sideway, who is in love with London, we sent him to London Bridge with a map of 18th-century London and told him to walk from there to St Paul’s Church. When he came back into the rehearsal room he described his journey, but using only the buildings that he would have seen in the 18th century.

BL:

What are you trying to achieve through these methods?

MSC:

An imaginative penetration of what it would be like to have lived then and to have experienced that society.

Typescript rehearsal drafts of Our Country's Good, with stage notes by Max Stafford–Clark

Typescript rehearsal drafts of Our Country's Good, with stage notes by Max Stafford–Clark

This rehearsal draft of Our Country’s Good reveals Max Stafford-Clark’s annotations and ‘actioning’ technique.

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Usage terms Timberlake Wertenbaker: © Timberlake Wertenbaker c/o The Agency (London) Ltd, 24 Pottery Lane, London W11 4LZ. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Max Stafford-Clark: © Max Stafford-Clark. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial No-Derivatives Licence.

BL:

What was the effect of doubling up the roles in Our Country's Good?

MS-C:

It was caused by economics, partly – but economics lead to aesthetics.

You’re calling on the actors’ versatility. You’re saying, this is a play about the theatre and we’re going to show you how actors can be different people. In the scene when the officers discuss the merits of the play, the whole cast are playing men. There was no attempt to disguise that.

It’s playful. They’re not called plays for nothing. It’s being playful with the audience and with the actors as well.

Photographs of Our Country's Good (1988 premiere at the Royal Court Theatre)

Photographs of Our Country's Good (1988 premiere at the Royal Court Theatre)

This production photograph, from the 1988 premiere under Max Stafford-Clark’s direction, captures a dynamic scene featuring players preparing for their performance. Jim Broadbent, who also played Midshipman Harry Brewer and Captain Campbell, is here portraying the convict John Arscott.

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BL:

Do you have a favourite character?

MS-C:

Mary Brenham’s story is amazing. She became pregnant by Ralph Clark and the daughter that was born of this illegitimate union was called Betsy Alicia, which was the name of Clark’s wife back in Plymouth. That was a compliment, not an insult, by the way. Yet after his term of service ended, he never saw her or the child again. Keneally has just a very moving sentence where he writes, ‘she went up country and disappears from history’. Nobody knows what happened to her.

But I also like Sideway, the pickpocket, because he’s passionately in love with theatre. He’s seen Garrick at Drury Lane. Sideway is not necessarily a bad actor, but he’s an inappropriate actor. That’s to say all acting is, is a language that communicates emotion over distance. For most young actors who leave drama school, their first performances will be in the upper rooms of pubs where intimacy and truth are important. During Garrick’s own acting career, however, Drury Lane moved from 700 seats at the beginning of the century to nearly 3,000 at the end. That had a huge effect on acting in terms of voice and gesture.

Sideways is bringing his idea of Drury Lane acting into a tent that seats 60 people.

Illustration of Drury Lane Theatre

This illustration captures the Drury Lane Theatre as it looked towards the end of actor-manager David Garrick’s career.

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BL:

How did the political context of the 1980s feed into Our Country’s Good?

MS-C:

The theatre itself was under threat. Mrs Thatcher believed in the reduction of the welfare state and that included theatre. I went to the Royal Court in 1979 and gradually through that next decade we had comparatively less and less funding. The attacks in Our Country's Goodby officers like Ross, who are opposed to the theatre, therefore had avalidity and resonance. It was received by the audience as a defence of theatre.

BL:

Before Our Country’s Good premiered, did you have any sense of how successful it might become?

MS-C

If I had the racing page now for the three o’clock at Doncaster, I couldn’t predict the winner but I could tell you four horses which definitely weren’t going to win and I could probably pick four horses from which the winner would come. Theatre is less reliable than that.

During rehearsals, everyone was emotionally and physically exhausted. We were always one draft behind where we should have been. Ron Cook describes the first preview at the Royal Court where the cast took a curtain call. Back in the dressing room they heard this roar and they thought, ‘God, is the theatre falling down, what’s happened?’ But it was the audience applauding and there was a standing ovation on the first preview.

I remember very well one particularly bad tempered and difficult afternoon in rehearsals. When we got to rehearse the last scene, which is set backstage in the convict dressing room, the Royal Court’s costume designer, stage manager and people associated with the production stayed in the room to watch the actors playing actors. It was then that I thought, for the first time, we could be on to a winner here. This is something that people are really interested in. But its success was like a 33:1 horse suddenly emerging from the field and winning. It had been such a difficult birth. 


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