Our Country’s GoodCategory: Past Shows
Lighting DesignerLeo Steele
Sound DesignerNigel Collins
CastCpt Arthur Philip..............TIM BURTON Maj Robbie Ross..............JAMES GOLDWATER Cap David Collins.............TOM DAPLYN Cap Watkin Tench............ZIAD AFRA Cap Jeremy Campbell......AL BARCLAY Reverend Johnson...........FRANCES BURTON Lt George Johnston.........NISHA KAUR Lt Will Dawes..................DENISE ROCARD Second Lt Ralph Clark......ANTHONY SEBASTIAN Second Lt William Faddy....EMILY CHUGG Midshipman Harry Brewer....AL BARCLAY John Arscott...................DENISE ROCARD Black Caesar....................ZIAD AFRA Ketch Freeman..............JAMES WHATLEY Robert Sideway.............TOM DAPLYN John Wisehammer............BARNEY FERRIS Mary Brenham...............KIM D’SANTOS Dabby Bryant...............EMILY CHUGG Liz Morden.................ROSIE WISE Duckling Smith.............NISHA KAUR Meg Long...................FRANCES BURTON ASM........................PHILL VICKERY Lighting operator..........ALBERT CRICK
Olivier “Best New Play” Award Winner (1988), encompassing themes of crime and punishment, the importance and of role theatre and the indefinable qualities of the human condition, set against the background of late 18th century colonial Australia and the 1788 convict fleet. Is the criminal tendency innate? If a man is a thief, does that mean he was born that way and will forever be that way? Can theatre offer a new path to a colony which is swiftly running out of food, let alone literature? Tacit’s version of this well rounded set of tales aims to show British Colonialism in a light in which it is rarely viewed: a light which “leaves no corner of the stage for the truth to hide in” (Bertolt Brecht).
A Play About a Play
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, ‘Our Country’s Good’, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel ‘The Playmaker’ has widely been regarded as a seminal piece of work regarding the Australian penal colonies and the hardships endured.
It is, at a first glance, an interesting and frank portrayal of the relationships and struggles of the English and Irish convicts and commanding officers in an unknown and unwelcoming land. But apart from providing us with an insight to this section of British life perservering in a foreign environment, it also discusses the very nature and merits of theatre itself. This metatheatrical musing complements the rather more immediate and uninhibited scenes of punishment and conflict in the play.
For example, in one scene, ‘the Authorities discuss the merits of theatre’, the officers debate amongst themselves the possible benefits or harm that putting on a play using convict actors could have. This thoughtful, almost philosophical scene is contrasted with another in which the sound of a prisoner being flogged disturbs a rehearsal of the struggling play. However, as the play progresses, and optomistic feeling emerges, as convicts find different advantages to the experience. The officer in charge of the rehearsals and performance, and therefore the central character, Lieutentant Ralph Clark, argues that speaking a refined language and dealing with subjects outside their situation would remind the convicts of civilisation and help reform them.
In some ways he is proved correct. An enthusiastic participant, the prisoner John Ascott, proclaims that when he speaks his character’s lines, he forgets himself and his toilsome life and embodies the character for some time, leaving troubles behind. Others develop a kind camaraderie through teaching, helping each other to read the lines and having a collective break from the day-to-day work in the colony.
However, a love triangle gives us the greatest example of art against the pitiful hardship in the penal colony. Mary Brenham, a female convict, and the main role in ‘The Recruiting Officer’ is desired by a fellow convict, whom she teaches to read and write, and who sees her as an ideal companion for menial life in the colony. However, through her performance and modesty in rehearsals Lieutenant Ralph Clark sees her in a new light; her ladylike conduct and passion for the theatre contradicting her convict status, and they fall in love. Through art, characters in the play find new meaning and direction in their lives, and an optimism that overshadows the difficulty of their positions.
The personal journey undergone by Lieutenant Ralph Clark is perhaps the most important with regards to understanding the difficulties endured by the colonials, not least because Ralph Clark actually existed, and it is his diaries that the book and the play are based on. Having a true first hand account of the journey to Australia helps one to understand the play.
‘Our Country’s Good’ opens with a monologue describing the solace found in sexual relations with women on a harrowing sea journey, and in the journals of Ralph Clark, we can see just how extreme the conditions were. He mentions how the convicts on board were clad in irons and several of the sailors broke through the men/women partition: ‘I never met with a parcel of more discontent fellows in my life they only want more provisions to give it to the damned whores the convict women.’ It is interesting that, whilst on the crossing fron England to New South Wales Clark maintained such a disparaging view of the convict women, when it later transpired that in fact he consorted with and eventually conceived a child with the young ‘whore’ Mary Brenhan , even naming the child after his English wife Betsey Alicia. It is proof of just how entirely different and lonely life was in the colony, that the Lieutenant so completely changed his opinion and found, if not love, at least companionship with a convict woman.