The play opens with a lone Aboriginal (indigenous Australian) sitting silently painting his skin with delicate designs. The peacefulness does not remain as he is replaced by the arrival of a new shipment of convicts, a collection of pitiful human beings more wretched than those of Hugo’s Les Misérables.
Those sat close the stage are fully immersed in the mob, tussling for breadcrumbs in the hell below deck and crying out for mercy. As much as this jars the senses, it is a merciful relief to realize that you are unable to see the whipping taking place on the raised section of the stage, on deck, but the cries of the victim ring out.
This arresting opening sets the tone for the rest of the performance; a life of brutality and starvation is what the convicts will now face in their Australian colony, to which they have been deported for their crimes back in England. What is disturbing is the historical reality upon which Wertenbaker’s tale is based, and his cast of soldiers stationed to deal with the convicts perfectly display the darkly ironic injustice of the 18th century justice system.
From this bleakness steps Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who proposes that some of the convicts act in a play which he will direct. His unwavering faith in them is the ray of hope which shines throughout the play as he believes that people can change, and be redeemed from their former sins. He is the only officer who treats the convicts with a shred of humanity, and thanks to him we see their characters bloom and grow. Comedic characters such as Dabby and Sideway, two convicts keen to participate in the play, lighten the melancholy and provide some much-needed light relief for the audience. Sideway’s parody of the nature of the theatre is particularly entertaining and it is with a nudge and a wink that the officers discuss its merits.
Jodie McNee shines as Liz Morden. As a fierce and defensive convict when we first meet her, she finds solace and friendship in Clark’s play, and her Pygmalion transformation is the most touching and inspiring character development. It is hard not to both pity and admire her, and her monologue in the second half is delivered with piercing honesty.
The threat of several convicts getting hanged looms from the outset and there is unrest within the colony. The officers treat the convicts as the scum of the earth, believing that they deserve to be punished with the utmost severity. Their evident pleasure in punishing and humiliating the convicts prompts the questions upon which Our Country’s Good is founded: what makes us good or evil? Who can judge this, and can we change? The irony is palpable as the British behave far more ‘savagely’ than the indigenous Australians, who curiously and peacefully observe the colony from the sidelines.
One standout element of this production is the music. The songs are reminiscent of English folk songs of the period and express how much the characters miss England. Furthermore, the music is interwoven into the structure of the play rather than appearing as separate musical numbers. With both the lyrics and the melodies having been specifically written for this production, the soundtrack takes the emotional impact of the production to the next level. To support this, the empty stage leaves the actors nowhere to hide as the humanity, or indeed inhumanity, of their characters is stripped bare and examined. The searing, blood-red backdrop reflects not only the burning heat of Australia and the physical passion which develops, but more importantly the rage of the characters at the hand life has dealt them.
Despite all its comic and hopeful moments, Our Country’s Good is profoundly bleak. For once their evening of theatre is over, the convicts will have to return to their brutal reality of their punishment, the soldiers will continue to fear starvation, and the Indigenous Australians will continue to suffer. Wertenbaker’s play is as relevant today as ever, as it brings into question the true meaning of civilisation and human nature.
Our Country’s Good runs until 17th October.