167: Our Country’s Good

24 Sep

I’ve loved this play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Our Country’s Good is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker. Set in Sydney in 1788, it shows a lowly officer setting out to put on a play with a group of convicts as the actors. Wertenbaker says in her introduction that she was inspired and moved by seeing a performance by prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. It reinforced for her the importance of theatre, something which comes through loud and clear in Our Country’s Good.

Sidney Nolan painting

Sidney Nolan: Convict, Mrs Fraser and Bird

This is a play about putting on a play, about power and class systems, about whether criminals are born or made and whether they can be redeemed, and also about the importance of education, art and learning.

Ralph Clark is the shy second lieutenant who decides to put on George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Most of his superiors think he’s crazy.

MAJOR ROBBIE ROSS: Filthy, thieving, lying whores and now we have to watch them flout their flitty wares on the stage!

[…]

CAPTAIN WATKIN TENCH: We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature.

As they start rehearsing, Clark begins to fall for one of the convicts, Mary Brenham. It could be a fine romance if Clark didn’t already have a wife back in England. Mary can read, a skill rare in the convicts, and Clark gives her the starring role. She is also in charge of copying the script and reading the lines to the others so that they can memorise them.

There are jealousies, rivalries and the constant threat of hanging, seemingly at the whim of the officers, but even the despised hangman, Ketch Freeman, wants to be in the play:

KETCH: Some players came into our village once. They were loved like the angels, Lieutenant, like the angels. And the way the women watched them – the light of a spring dawn in their eyes.
Lieutenant –
I want to be an actor.

Our Country’s Good is full of laughs as the convicts defy the director, refusing to say certain lines, questioning everything and wanting to rewrite the play to make it more relevant to them. This is a play that argues for and establishes the need for theatre. It’s a glorious affirmation of the art form and also has plenty to say about the prison system and the way we used to (and some people still do) think of prisoners.

RALPH: We must get at the truth.
ROSS: Truth! We have 800 thieves, perjurers, forgers, murderers, liars, escapers, rapists, whores, coiners in this scrub-ridden, dust-driven, thunder-bolted, savage-run, cretinous colony.
[…]
CAPTAIN ARTHUR PHILLIP: Truth is indeed a luxury, but its absence brings about the most abject poverty in a civilisation. That is the paradox.
ROSS: This is a profligate prison for us all, it’s a hellish hole we soldiers have been hauled to because they blame us for losing the war in America. This is a hateful, hary-scary, topsy-turvy outpost, this is not a civilisation. I hate this possumy place.

Publisher: Methuen

Cast: 16M, 5F (can be doubled and tripled)

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