It is 1789 in the newly formed settlement at Botany Bay in Australia. The Royal Marines are struggling to feed themselves and the community of convicts that they have transported from England. Three men are about to be hanged for stealing food. An officer flippantly suggests that hanging is the convicts’ favourite form of entertainment – “it’s their theatre”. The enlightened Governor of the colony is struck by another idea: that they might put on a real play to distract and entertain the imprisoned population, much against the view of many of his officers who think that any such culture would be wasted on the population of convicts and whores.
This unlikely story of a theatre production being put on by convicts in the new-found colony in New South Wales is true, for a group of those who were transported in what was known as the First Fleet to Australia did in fact put on a performance of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer in honour of King George III’s birthday in June 1789. Almost exactly 200 years later playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre to adapt the story of this extraordinary theatrical enterprise into a new play that could run alongside their revival of The Recruiting Officer. Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good premiered at the Royal Court in 1988, going on to win the Olivier Play of the Year award that year.
The play is now a common set text for Theatre and English Literature studies at both secondary and university level. It’s a vivid portrait of the volatile mix of the two sections that make up the new colony – the officers and the convicts. In the contrasts between the two, and in the parallels drawn with The Recruiting Officer as the convicts rehearse the play-within-play, the play raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good, or otherwise: the principles of justice and punishment; the stultifying constraints of class prejudice; the value and availability of education or culture, particularly the redemptive potential of theatre itself.
There is of course an obvious logic in our choosing Our Country’s Good to follow fresh on the heels of our last episode devoted to The Recruiting Officer, and the logic extends naturally to our inviting back our expert guest from that episode, director Matt Bereford. In fact, following his recent production of The Recruiting Officer at the Teddington Theatre Club, Matt will return to direct Our Country’s Good at the same theatre in 2022.