Director Max Stafford-Clark was bluntly honest. Several reasons contributed to his decision to remount "Our Country's Good" 25 years after its premiere in England. Art had much to do with it, but so too did commerce.
"The play is studied widely in colleges and drama schools here, and I knew there was a market for it," Stafford-Clark said by phone from London. "We are under terrible pressure; 45 percent of our funding comes from the state, and the coalition government has been withdrawing money. We needed to find something that would get an audience."
Stafford-Clark is giving Twin Cities audiences a chance to get familiar with this modern classic, which champions the power of theater. On Friday, two British companies — Out of Joint and Octagon Theatre Bolton — open Stafford-Clark's production of "Our Country's Good" at the Guthrie Theater.
Stafford-Clark asked Guthrie Director Joe Dowling to come see the new production about a year ago and Dowling agreed to host the staging.
After making his lament about the demise of national support in Britain, Stafford-Clark admitted that "It's not as cynical as all that. It's a great pleasure to revisit it."
Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker adapted "Our Country's Good" from "The Playmaker," a novel by Thomas Keneally. After seeing the show in 2013, Michael Billington, critic at the Guardian newspaper, said the play remained "terrifyingly relevant" at a time when budget cuts were eliminating humanities from the British school curriculum.
In this together
The relevance stems from Wertenbaker's theme in "Our Country's Good." Prisoners and their guards find themselves turning into human beings while they rehearse and perform a Restoration comedy.
Australia became Britain's largest penal colony in the late 18th century, with the First Fleet reaching port in Sydney in 1788.
"After we lost the War of Independence, we couldn't ship convicts to Virginia anymore," Stafford-Clark said.
Conditions were grim for prisoners, and not terribly cheery for the officers stuck in this outpost at the end of the world. Keneally's story and Wertenbaker's play depict the hopelessness of the convicts, the cruelty of overlords and the nervous fear of Aboriginal people who witnessed the arrival of Europeans.
Through the rehearsal (of George Farquhar's "The Recruiting Officer"), divisions break down among the factions and a shared humanity emerges.
Revisiting the work after a quarter-century, Stafford-Clark said he approached "Our Country's Good" with a certain confidence.
"New plays you can trundle down the runway and they can end up in the nearest hedge," he said. "When you direct a modern classic, you know that somebody somewhere has made it work. The personalities of the actors are different this time and that's the main determinant in making it work."
Stafford-Clark, 73, has experienced the healing power of theater himself. He founded Joint Stock in 1974 with fellow director Bill Gaskill. They cultivated such writers as Caryl Churchill, David Hare and Howard Brenton. It was Stafford-Clark who commissioned Wertenbaker to adapt "The Playmaker" into "Our Country's Good" in 1988.
He had to contemplate retirement several years ago after a stroke left him hospitalized. But he returned — in measured steps — and realized he missed the company of actors in the rehearsal room.
"I really love the knack of this," he said. "I got back, and it all clicked into place again. This is restorative."
If you don't immediately recall Stafford-Clark's name, you might recall his staging of "Macbeth," which Out of Joint performed at the old Guthrie Lab 10 years ago. In promenade style and reset in a West African republic, the production raised the hair on the back of your neck.
"The Guthrie is the emblem of Minneapolis," he said. "I have slept in Tyrone Guthrie's bed in his home at Annaghmakerrig [which is now an artists' center]."
Stafford-Clark's production of "Our Country's Good" will go to Toronto in the fall, a city with its own Guthrie history at the nearby Stratford Festival.
"You're just occasionally blessed by the theater gods," Stafford-Clark said. "When you put on a play you expect history to be changed, but the event often doesn't live up to the expectation. 'Our Country's Good' is one of those rare occasions when it does."