Based on Thomas Keneally’s historical novel The Playmaker and winner in 1988 of major Best Play awards on both sides of the Atlantic, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good explores the redemptive power of theatre performance through the experience of convicts in Sydney Town in 1789. Both novel and play draw on letters and journals of First Fleet officers, for it is a matter of historical record that under the direction of Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark a ‘troupe’ of convicts performed the first Australian production of any play Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.
Clark’s choice of Farquhar’s play was apt. Its plot involves a captain and a sergeant, travelling the English countryside ‘recruiting’ simple country folk for the war against France and looking for women for their beds. In one-year-old colonial Australia, convict (and aboriginal) women were the only women. As captive as the convicts to the settlement’s climate and arid soils, lack of supply, disease and marauding aborigines led by Pemelwuy, the troops vented their frustrations on their hapless charges through their loins, the lash and the noose.
A nation being progressively deprived of its founding history should also be reminded that none of men, among the 736 convicts first transported, had been convicted of murder or rape. None of the women had been transported for prostitution. It was not a transportable offence. Most convicts, men and women, were petty thieves whose hanging sentences had been commuted to seven years transportation. Some small appreciation of the brutality and inhumanity of convict life one year after white ‘invasion’ might be gained by comparison with the worst excesses of the American military’s treatment of its Abu Ghraib detainees.
These are the ingredients of cruelty and abuse central to Ms Wertenbaker’s play, and the savage background against which Farquhar’s comedy is, with unintended irony, planned and rehearsed.
Regrettably this production by QUT Precincts (so precious), featuring the graduating actors of Company 06, fails to capture either the barbarity of the time and place and circumstances, or the redemption and self-actualisation that the participating convicts achieve through their theatre experience.
Primary responsibility for the failure must be attributed to the director, MTC’s Kate Cherry, who has rendered a static, sit-(or stand-)and-deliver portrayal of volatile characters in volatile circumstances in an open setting (by ‘Design Creative’ Adam Head) that begged for volatile choreography to fill it. The last-supper staging of the vote on ‘to play or not to play’ was a standout sit-down in this regard.
As written, the play calls for a cast of 20; 10 officers of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and 10 convicts. Twelve graduating actors and two 12th men carry the burden here. Program role identification equivalent to the ‘Creatives’ and ‘Crew’ would have assisted.
While all attempted the diverse accents of the period, the director might have ensured intelligibility took precedence over accuracy. The energy of the actors was admirable but, for most of them, lack of life experience was apparent. Hamstrung by the direction, few delivered performances which provided dramatic access into the tenuous daily lives of first settlement keepers and convicts, which meant that our experience of the redemptive power of ‘drama and self-expression’ was neutered.
Best performances came from Duncan Pattle, Marcel Baum and Karen Bowen.
Directed by Kate Cherry
Playing 23 March to 1 April at 7.30pm
Running time; 2hrs 20mins app.(incl. interval)