Edinburgh Fringe 2009
This is an atmospheric and well acted production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Award winning play. It is about a lieutenant who is moved to put on a play with the convicts he is guarding. With a cast of fifteen playing more than twenty characters, it is performed in the submerged vaults under Old Edinburgh.
Australia, 1789. As the first fleet of convicts arrive, the soldiers with them start to question the morality of British justice. It is a harsh and cruel justice, with many of the prisoners there simply for getting into a fight with a sailor or stealing a biscuit! And a hanging offence is never far off. Meanwhile, the rank and file begin to disagree with each other. It is suggested to a lieutenant to put on a play, a ridiculous idea and going against the Crown to the more conservative parties; yet to the more intelligent thinkers one that would surely do no harm and perhaps even partly relieve the bored and depressing existence of being in a far off land away from home. The soft lieutenant Ralph Clarke is the plays director who comes under fire from the brutal Major Ross.
Wertenbaker has written an excellent story which discusses themes of punishment and the Empire and hails to the power of theatre to bring people together. All the characters are very well drawn and represent particular character types that can bounce off each other and make for interesting drama.
The director Ellie Pitkin has done an excellent job with her young cast. They swap roles convincingly and are an excellent ensemble. They convey the relationship dynamic between the low status convicts and arrogance of the establishment sensitively. All the actors work hard in their roles, and it is the the ensemble scenes that are the nicest to watch. Special mention goes to the female convicts: Alicia Ambrose-Bayly as troubled convict Liz Morden, Poppy Corbett as the mouthy ‘Shitty Meg’ who has good comic timing, and Charlotte Higgins who has a very sweet, soft stage presence. This trio realistically portray their characters whilst developing the hierarchical relationship that would exist in such a place of group confinement.
George Islay Calderwood as both camp convict Ketch and Rev Johnson is also very good, inhabiting his roles with energy and wit. Tom Bridges is fine as the tortured Harry Brewer, Richard Stratton plays the soft lieutenant/director with convincing earnestness and Cameron Corbett, also playing both convict and a Governor acts with strength and realism. The cast are uniformly good, and most impressively, are always acting and reacting to what they hear and see.
The venue does indeed lend atmosphere to the piece, although it doesn’t totally transport us for there are scenes on the ship and on the land; so it acts more as a brooding presence that accentuates the flavour of the piece.
There are three separate spaces, and we are asked to change room every one or two scenes. This does get a little tiresome sometimes, although we are provided with swimming mats to sit on. One can see the company have been aware of this, but I was wondering if one or two of the scenes could have been done in the same space. The strongest image is when we are moved into an arched, low ceilinged cavern to encounter the soldiers at the inn at a long table bathed in orange light. This is truly a painterly image, almost as if we were watching a troupe of spectres.
The lesser scenes between characters that make up the sub-plots of the story are less interesting and show up the actors more. Some of the scenes are quite long and don’t really convince like the bigger scenes do. There is an aborigine who appears every so often and ia a stark image, but doesn’t really add anything because his presence is removed from the rest of the action.
The Sans Walk Project are dedicated to the creation of site-specific theatre. In this production they also use sound and lighting a lot to evoke the story. So although I wouldn’t say the venue’s architecture exactly, in their words, ‘dictated the art form’, they have staged an excellent play in its own right.