Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Joanne Lisik
Gryphon Theatre, 4th Apr 2018
Reviewed by Madelaine Empson
After eight harrowing months at sea, a shipload of convicts arrives at Botany Bay to establish the first penal colony in New South Wales. Royal Marines punish and prod, whip and lash as the criminals – mostly petty thieves – live out a hellish existence in the wasteland. But there is one ray of hope: 2nd Lt Ralph Clark RM (James Boag) decides to stage a production of The Recruiting Officer. For six months, he rehearses with the exiles as the life-changing capacity of theatre comes to light.
This Wellington Repertory production is beautifully set (design by Joanne Lisik) on a long, horizontal stage replete with an open marquee, a corner deck, dirt, suitcases, and neutral, earthy colours that evoke barren land. The costumes, particularly those of of the guards, are striking, adding tinges of bright red remnant of the blood shed at Botany Bay. Often, we watch the cast disrobe and dress, transforming from guard to prisoner, keeper to kept and back again. These scenes are visceral and gritty, adding a deeper dimension to the script’s themes of crime and punishment. The actors fully commit, vulnerable and brave in their state of undress.
Contemporary dance is woven throughout the production, often to poignant effect.
Lisik has integrated movement to “draw out the subtext”, a move that doesn’t sit right with me in one scene. Immediately after Midshipman Harry Brewer RN (Patrick McTague) throttles prisoner Ann (aka Duckling) Smith (Anna Chambers) and calls her a whore, the pair embark on a passionate stylised tango infused with frenzied desire. Though the choreography was wonderful and its execution flawless, the moment to me signified a glorification of abuse and violence. The decision to romanticise the relationship that early on, before we discover that Duckling is in fact (bizarrely and problematically) in love with Brewer, made me feel quite uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, Wellington Repertory Theatre deserves a resounding bravo for the efforts and talent they have poured into this polished, professional production.