Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company in Co-Production with Ramps on the Moon are about to embark on a UK tour of Our Country’s Good. Associate Director Simon Startin talks to DAO about a cast of disabled and non-disabled actors coming together to tell a story of a ship full of convicts setting sail for Australia in 1787.
“The theatre is like a small republic, it requires private sacrifices for the good of the whole”.
As I sit in rehearsals of the next Ramps on the Moon production Our Country’s Good these words from the play splash on my face like iced water. Here before my eyes, whilst grappling with the difficulties of creating an accessible, nuanced and detailed production of this seminal text, a little stab at social model utopia is being created.
A mixed cast of some seventeen disabled and able bodied actors are working together in a way rarely seen. People are adapting their usual processes, inventing new tricks and workarounds, communicating on a level playing field; all in service of putting on a play. This is the special alchemy that a Ramps on the Moon production brings. For the disabled actors, it maybe the first time they have been in a production where their artistic and access needs are so well-resourced, where the rehearsal room is so large and the expectations to deliver so high.
For the able-bodied, they are given the time and opportunity to deeply collaborate with artists and ideas that have hitherto been denied them. From my perspective as a disabled artist this rehearsal room represents an absolute good.
The play centres on the the officers and convicts on the 1st fleet to sail to Australia, where they built a penal colony. Lieutenant Ralph Clark, at the behest of the colony’s new Governor, is set the task of putting on Australia’s first theatrical production with a band of rebellious and traumatised convicts, for the entertainment of officers and the moral improvement of the prisoners.
This is a multi-layered play of epic themes: redemption, colonisation, the efficacy of penal punishment and who should be allowed to be the storytellers within a society. It is in this last facet that this Ramps on the Moon production vibrates with particular potential. Director Fiona Buffini has assembled a truly diverse cast that puts the business-as-usual casting of much of UK theatre to shame. So, the meaning of the play is demonstrated within the very process of making it. It may be possible to look at the stage and with some truth say, ”At last all humankind is here”.
The making of this production has not been without its happy accidents. Fiona Buffini only criteria for casting was at least 50% of the cast are Deaf or disabled and that the actors should be the best actors for their roles, with no consideration of how impairments or disability aesthetics might impact on that.
As it materialised this led to a large number of the cast having sign language skills. This has enabled an approach to access for Deaf audiences I’ve not seen before within mainstream theatre. Instead of a BSL interpreter ‘ghosting’ between the actors, as has been seen in disability theatre productions since the 90s, the sign language is sown into the world of the play directly. This community of convicts supply their own access. They learn it from each other. Over the course of the story, they even use BSL as means of espionage on the officers that control their lives. Access is even used a signifier of a character’s redemption.
We are still a long way from the finish line in this process of rehearsing. The embedding of sign by Paula Garfield and Kam Deo is a painstaking and delicate process, on top of the many flogging scenes, stage fights, costume changes and accessible water bottles to be created. And we haven’t even got to examining how lighting design and accessible captioning might be at war with each other.
My hope, as always, is that this is a great production serving a fantastic and important play, but more than that, that we are modelling to the UK theatre sector how truly diverse work can be made. Maybe beyond that, we are showing to our audience how, when disabled and enabled people work together in a spirit of deep and generous collaboration, we might even catch a glimpse of Utopia.
A Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company production in co-production with Ramps On The Moon
Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, based on The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally
Director Fiona Buffini
9 – 24 March
28 March – 7 April
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 01473 295900
11 – 21 April
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds 0113 213 7700
25 April – 5 May
Theatre Royal Stratford East 020 8534 0310
12 – 19 May
Sheffield Crucible Theatre 0114 249 6000
23 May –2June
Birmingham Rep 0121 236 4455