Broadcast Text Reviews: Our Country’s Good and An Enemy of the People

by Lynn on September 29, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two plays were reviewed on Friday, September 26, 2014. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. Our Country’s Good at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until October 26, 2014. And An Enemy of the People at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, until Oct. 26, 2014.

The Host was Phil Taylor.


Good Friday morning. It’s theatre talk time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer.
What’s up this week?

Two interesting plays. First Our Country’s Good written by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker.

About a group of thieves, prostitutes and other miscreants who have been brought to Australia to serve their sentences, and the soldiers who are charged with keeping law and order.

And then An Enemy of the People by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, at the Tarragon Theatre, in a production that is gripping and muscular, in an adaptation that is as timely as it is unsettling.


Woow. We better get right to them. Tell us about Our Country’s Good.


It’s directed by Max Stafford-Clark. He brought a production of the play to Toronto about 25 years ago.
He has re-directed it with a different cast.

It’s the early days of colonizing Australia with theives whores, prisoners and the soldiers who have to guard them all living in that desolate place. Flogging is a usual punishment. So is hanging.

The governor is trying to govern wisely. An officer named Ralph Clark is trying to make a difference to those poor people by proposing that they put on a play, The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar.

Through that journey of doing the play, you see who these people really are, and how they are of course more than miserable prisoners and unhappy soldiers.

It’s also a love letter to the theatre and its transformative powers. They begin to think of themselves in larger terms because of doing that play. And they begin to believe that audiences will believe they are who they say they are because of the power of the theatre. I loved that.

Is it unusual for a director to revisit a play after so many years?

No, not unusual at all. Directors do it all the time. It’s always interesting to see the difference in various productions that directors revisit.

I take it you saw the production 25 years ago?

I did. It was terrific. I have to say, I never compare other productions from elsewhere or long ago as if to show off. It serves no purpose to the audience. And because of that first production I was so looking forward to this one.


Were you happy with it?

Truth to tell, I was disappointed. I sat there, watched intently and respected the acting, which is terrific. Of the 10 actors, nine of them play multiple parts. Only Nathan Ives-Moiba plays one part—Ralph Clark, the officer directing the play and supporting his unsteady actors. Ives-Moiba has a sweet quality, missing his wife, falling in love with another woman there; tormented with guilt but compassionate.

Actors would switch from character to character off stage with a change of a wig or a different coat. Each character is different, distinct, often changing class and accent and all real.

For example Sam Graham plays a taunting Captain Campbell, pompous and arrogant. Then he’s Harry Brewer, a lowly sailor in love with a prostitute. Then he plays a woman, in another costume change.

But I felt something was missing here and I realized it was the magic of the theatre. I can appreciate that we are to suspend our disbelief and imagine that world and appreciate how the actor flits from one character to another. I never compare productions—but I will here.

What happened 25 years ago was that we saw the transformations before our eyes. The posture, costume and simple wigs or hair changed in full view and we saw how an actor could become another character and convince us—make us suspend our disbelief.

For example, the actor playing the parts of Captain Cambell and Harry Brewer etc. all those years ago was Ron Cook. He finished a scene as Harry, stooped, dishevelled, wild hair and unshaven. He straightened up and at the same time flipped his long, wild hair back, smoothed it out, assumed the stance and attitude of Captain Graham and I swear went from being 5’7” to being 6 feet tall, elegant and clean shaven. Seeing that transformation stunned me. I looked out for Ron Cook in a play whenever I went to London.

I will look out for these actors too, but that little bit of magic is not there and I don’t know why Max Staffor-Clark changed that for this production since he directed the production 25 years ago and this one.

Stafford-Clark still directs with a sure hand and clearly establishes the relationships, but by having all the costumes and character changes happen off stage, I think a wonderful opportunity for theatricality and the magic effect of the theatre is lost.

And tell us about An Enemy of the People.


It was written in th 1880s by Henrik Ibsen. It has been adapted for the modern day by Forian Borchmeyer.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the medical officer for his spa town. His brother Peter is a smooth-talking politician who runs the Spa Corporation, among other things. Recently Thomas had a hunch about the water in the spa not being safe. Many tourists became sick when they visited the spa.

Thomas has tests done. The tests reveals that the water is poisoned from toxic waste and chemicals coming from sources flowing down into the spa. The main culprit is a factory in the hills owned by his father-in-law. Thomas’s options seem pretty clear to him. He will reveal his findings in the local newspaper and make sweeping recommendations to clean up the water and relay the pipes.

His savvy brother Peter doesn’t agree. Peter doesn’t want Thomas to say anything. The spa is the town’s only money-making industry and the news will ruin it. The spa will have to be closed for at least two years and the cleanup and relaying of pipes etc. will cost millions of dollars. The town can’t afford it but they are liable.
Peter paints a pretty convincing, dire picture. Thomas will have none of it.

He demands a town hall meeting to present his case and is vilified. It’s a story of truth vs. dishonesty for ones own gain. It’s about moral bankruptcy, crooked politicians, and working to change the world by standing up alone and saying “no.”

Does it work as a modern production?

Of course. Michelle Tracey’s set is composed of walls that are blackboards with drawings, phrases and intriguing sayings in chalk. “The eyes of the world are watching,” is one such saying.

The furniture is ultra-modern: there is a black sofa with a matching black chair; musical recording equipment covers one table; laptop computers are used at the newspaper and for composing music.

As the story progresses, the set is gradually cleared away; the walls are covered in white-wash (symbolism there?) and Thomas and his wife Katharina are left on the ground wondering what to do next.

Director Richard Rose has done a terrific job in realizing the many layers of this complex yet clearly stated play. He nicely establishes the busy, sometimes frenzied lives of Thomas, Katharina, Peter and others.
Rose drives the ever quickening pace, like a torrent of gushing water, to its unsettling conclusion.

As Thomas, Joe Cobden is a schlumpy man, perhaps an unlikely looking medical officer but his conviction is anything but messy. Cobden creates a boyish, innocent portrayal of Thomas, who then emerges as a fierce, angry man fighting for the town’s and his very existence.

As Peter, Rick Roberts looks the very picture of a smooth, manipulative politician. He knows how to manoeuvre an argument and certainly when it’s with his less crafty brother, Thomas. The scenes between the brothers slowly reveal the frustration and fury they have for each other; the contempt for the other’s ideals and philosophy.

The town hall in which Thomas tries to present his case is high-jacked by his savvy brother who knows how to manipulate a meeting to his own ends.

Then a wonderful things happens. The lights in the theatre are turned on to reveal the audience. Peter directs his comments to them.

Some folks are game and offer comment to Peter’s (Rick Roberts) double speak. Other characters get into the discussion. It’s to the actors’ credit that they can thrust and parry as their characters would as if that audience are the townsfolk. That town hall meeting beautifully blurs the lines between theatre and life.

Ibsen wrote this astonishing play in 1882. All any Ontarian need say to realize how art imitates life is “Walkerton.” Unfortunately one gets the sense the play will never be dated as long as there is greed, self-interest and a noble person standing up saying, “no.”

Richard Rose and his wonderful cast have created a thrilling production. Important. Compelling. Essential.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our Theatre Critic and Passionate Playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter @slotkinletter

Our Country’s Good plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until Oct. 26.

An Enemy of the People plays at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace until Oct. 26.

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1 Tandy Cronyn October 12, 2014 at 4:32 pm

I’m going to see a much-praised production of this play, but in the Arthur Miller adaptation, at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires later this week. I’d love to know how the Miller and Borchmeyer treatments differ. Obviously, with computers on the set, the Borchmeyer version is completely contemporary, while Miller’s is set in Ibsen’s original time period. Anything else?