We watched the National Theatre production of Our Country’s Good at the Olivier Theatre on the Southbank.
The play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, and tells the story of the arrival of the first prisoners in the penal colony of Australia in 1788. The convicts are encouraged to give a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. We see them in rehearsal, and witness the way they are treated as prisoners. The idea of the convicts performing a play is controversial, and criticised by most of the officers, who see them as unredeemable and unworthy. Only Captain Phillip, the leader of the expedition, supports the plan to stage the play and offer the convicts hope and normality.
The focus on prison reform and the penal system is obvious. The play opens with the convicts cramped in the hold of the ship, and there is ample and quite shocking evidence of brutality to them throughout the play. Their role as actors in The Recruiting Officer allows the audience to see a different dimension to their characters. We see their humanity and compassion, and hear about the suffering and brutality that has led them to imprisonment.
All this might seem very cliched – but there are characters who bring more shades of grey to the plot, such as Midshipman Harry Brewer, played by Paul Kaye: he is haunted by the hangings of convicts in Sydney, and in love with a young convict himself. The vile characters of the other officers – cruel and inarticulate in the King’s scarlet – and the varied acts of barbarity they carry out – beating, cat o’ nine tails, starvation – bring conviction to this presentation of a rapacious and vicious British army. In contrast, prisoner Liz Morden is a particular figure of honest integrity and strength despite the degradation she suffers at the hands of the soldiers, and the horrors of her childhood experiences in Liverpool.
Thematically the play is more than just an account of different penal methods. It offers a post-colonial view of a chauvinistic ruling class dominating through violence and ignorance. Throughout this production a young aborigine appears and reappears, dancing, lighting a fire or singing in the background: he watches the events, and his presence suggests to the audience that there is a different viewpoint to that of the white English colonists – the view of the native Australians. In the end he dies of smallpox, brought to Australia by the colonists, so we see the damage they wreak, but nothing of any attempts to do good. In this production Captain Phillip whose liberal views challenge the orthodoxy of the officers’ views on punishment is portrayed by a black actor, so that the alternative and more modern view of imprisonment is a minority voice, a black voice. This was particularly effective in emphasising the post-colonial message of the play.
This was a fantastic performance. It was visually stunning and very moving. The music, much of which was based on folk songs, and on the blues of slavery and suffering, was beautiful and enhanced the play. It was the work of Cerys Matthews and Josienne Clarke.