Though a little overlong, director Matthew Plant has produced an interesting version of Wertenbaker’s play, based on real characters who sailed to Australia in 1789 to start a penal colony.
We are immediately aware of the emotional distance between the officers and the convicts as the latter are tied together and sway with the boat as the former look on fiercely, guns at the ready. Perhaps the staging of a play will restore some humanity and dignity in the inmates.
This periodically funny and at times shocking piece takes a while to get going but comes to the boil when rehearsals get going. There is plenty of jollity in watching Adam Renvoize’s extravagantly expressive Robert Sideway conduct himself. Also amusing is watching the confrontation between an aloof but ladylike Mary Brenham (Bethan Radcliffe) and a rather more common Liz Morden, played by Kate Butler.
Dan Turner is excellent as malicious Major Robbie Ross. I found myself hoping he would get his comeuppance for his unspeakable acts of cruelty and humiliation towards the convicts. I am reminded of the human rights controversy in Guantanamo Bay. Paul Hilliar does a terrific job as a lower officer struggling with jealousy and mental ill-health. Kevin Matthews is subtle and understated as diffident director Lieutenant Ralph Clark who comes to respect the convicts.
Although the officers are manipulative, Timberlakes’s women are tough cookies. Though she wrote the play in 1988, it’s more than possible that undercurrents of feminism were bubbling away in Dreamtime 1789.