As a public we are aware that Australia was colonized by the British to serve as a penal colony. We know that what is today a country that is a leader in the world in personal freedom, political stability, and dangerous spiders, was founded by criminals. What we generally don’t know is who the true criminals were and how/why the country flourished. Our Country’s Good tells this story, as well as presents a number of issues we as a society face to this day.
The entire first half of the play is spent setting the scene of colonization. We are introduced to the various classes of people – socially and philosophically. It is often tedious to watch, with long-winded debates, and disjointed scenes presenting characters and their milieu which only provide moments of comedy to break up the tedium. But, looking from a historical standpoint, the scenes are vital for our understanding of the motivations behind the actions of various officers and convicts, the form of government prevalent in England and how it affected so many remote parts of our world, the injustice of the of the penal code…etc.
Our Country’s Good is more than an entertaining piece of theater, it attempts to reveal history, in a memorable and poignant way, so that we go away with more than just a feeling of enjoyment. The actor’s intense performances are often riveting and not only do justice to the play and the Guthrie, but draw us into what could be seen as a pedantic presentation of issues, yet is instead embraced as a very real and relevant story. We see and feel the humanity and heroism of the characters and begin to understand how Australia came to be the great country it is today.
The underlying philosophical debate which drives the play is between those who oppose the inmates putting on a play, and those who support and encourage it. The various shapes that this argument takes throughout the play reveals not only the attitudes towards criminals which the upper classes held, but the hypocrisy of the actions and motivations of the jailers. At what point do we lose rights as human beings? Of what mercy and understanding are we deserving? What is the true goal of punishment and reformation? What role do the arts play in that reformation? These questions not only bring to light English society at the end of the 18th century, but ring true to this day about our own criminal justice and class systems.
But Our Country’s Good does not stop there. As we see Lieutenant Clark trying desperately to train the convicts to act in Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, the dialogue turns to the very real issue of the arts in society. As we see the annual cuts to more and more arts programs in our schools and community theaters around the country, Clark’s and Governor Phillip’s argument for the vital effects of theater on society is more relevant than ever. Here, Timberlake Wertenbaker demonstrates true playwriting finesse as we witness the effects of theater rather than it being thrown in our face through obvious dialogue. As a whole, her adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s (author of Schindler’s List) The Playmaker, along with brilliant direction by Max Stafford-Clark, brings all of this to light through many subtle moments of theatrical genius.
Our Country’s Good manages to use both modern drama and movement, as well as plenty of humor to keep the story moving along. There is of course a love story intertwined, but for the most part it serves as an accent, and as yet another historical revelation of the relationships between convicts and soldiers turned jailers.
There is even an address of the prevalent anti-Semitism of the day, no more than a couple of lines in total, which I found hilarious, yet left our Minnesota audience in an uncomfortable silence – which speaks volumes about today’s prejudices. That sort of transition and address of issues which should long ago have died away as we have grown as a society but which are still the scourge of moral and social freedom around the world, is what gives Our Country’s Good an immediate relevance to all audiences.
The second half of the play, which includes delicate interpersonal and professional resolutions for the characters, is fast paced, even more funny and poignant, and brings a very real catharsis as we see the inmate’s hard-won play materialize. And again, ending with a theatrical delicacy we do not often see, Our Country’s Good concludes with some unanswered questions and some stories the conclusions to which we are left to imagine. That absence of in your face information allows the play to transcend the historical setting of the play, and the lessons it attempts to teach, and leaves us to evaluate for ourselves the truths we had just witnessed on stage and how they apply to us and to our world. There is really little else I can ask of a play.
Our Country’s Good will be running at the Guthrie until June 29th. See it, and be moved and inspired.