Timberlake Wertenbaker's account of a convict performance in Australia has a message of hope, says Aleks Sierz.
Inspired by Thomas Keneally's novel, The Playmaker - which tells the story of the first play to be performed by Europeans in Australia in the 18th century - Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play, Our Country's Good, is set in Sydney in 1789, shortly after the arrival of transported convicts.
The penal colony's governor, Captain Arthur Philip, believes that art has the power to reform criminal behaviour and he decides to stage George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, using the convicts as actors.
Amid much comedy as they learn their lines, there is also a sense of redemption as some of them discover the power of theatre. Director Georgia Bance says: "The play has a huge message, which is about the capacity of the human spirit to rise above circumstances - and the way human beings find a meaning for their lives even in the worst conditions."
Wertenbaker uses the play's theatre show "as an example of how people seek ways of creating a life for themselves despite being treated with barbarity". The title, which refers to the way convicts were transported for the good of their country, seems to sum up a sense of rejection - but it also has a "double meaning" which implies that the convicts' new country of Australia is good, a new beginning. More controversially, Bance says:
"It also suggests that England may, after all, be good, too."
According to Bance: "the play moves very fast and our set is abstract and uncluttered to avoid slowing down the action during scene changes." She's added a lot of music, "mostly based on 18thcentury folk music and country songs, some of which will be played on authentic instruments, some with a more contemporary twang."
But what about Captain Arthur Philip: is he too good to be true? "I think he is a man before his time - liberal, future-thinking and a remarkable idealist. He must have been up against a huge amount of opposition. In our research we found that his military superiors thought he was mad - and wanted to get rid of him."
It's worth remembering, says Bance, that, "Sydney as we know it - beautiful beaches, sculptural architecture, a sophisticated cosmopolitan city - began with a shipment of terrified convicts, a few homesick sailors and their bewildered Aboriginal hosts. The play is not only a metaphor for the human spirit, it is also a symbol of one culture conquering another."
Aleks Sierz Our Country's Good is at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, until November 16. Tel: 02380 671 771