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Theatre: The Transcendental Power of Drama

Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Touring.

The first time I saw Our Country's Good, when it was premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988, I found it difficult to speak for some time afterwards. Fortunately most of the audience, including my partner and our friends, were similarly placed. The occasion has been so redemptive and affirmative, so full of the possibilities of transforming change, that we could only wait in our seats until our emotions quietened. Later we saw the play again, this time with our two children and their partners, and the impact was the same. No surprise then that at the end of the year Timberlake Wertenbaker won the Play of the Year Award for her thrilling, transcendent drama.

Now ten years later, Out of Joint are touring with the play. We caught it at Bury St Edmunds, from where it was going on to Blackpool and Eastbourne. I would advise anyone who is sympathetic to the ideas of freedom, equality, and democracy, to make a special effort to see this marvellous production, played with total conviction by a wonderful cast. With most of the media seemingly intent on dumbing-down—the better to enslave, coerce and imprison compliant minds—here is a tale of blazing vitality which affirms that people can free themselves from both their physical and ideological prisons, and emerge with confidence and a sense of purpose determined to manage their own lives.

Our Country's Good is based on Thomas Keneally's novel, The Playmaker. This tells the story of a group of criminals who were amongst the first to be transported to Australia. It describes how the 736 convicts aged between 9 and 82 travelled 16,000 miles and "endured eight months of unbearable hardship. Amazingly 690 survived the voyage. Chained up in the hold of the ship, they were deprived of light, and during bad weather, of air. The hold was cramped: 4 people shared a space 6 foot by 7 foot which was only 5 foot 5 inches high. After three months at sea their clothes had worn bare and they were given sacks instead". This is the condition in which we see the convicts at the beginning of the play.

The First Governor of Australia, Captain Phillips, is surprisingly sympathetic to Enlightenment ideas, but he is surrounded by officers whose opinions evidence a full complement of alternative views of the world; people very like those we are familiar with today. Collins, the pragmatic Advocate General intent on doing what the law bids, especially if this carries the support of the Governor; the cynical Captain Tench who believes criminality is innate; Major Ross, bigot and sadist; the Reverend Johnson worrying lest he might offend the scriptures; and so on.

But Phillips is a realist who recognises that when the convicts are released at the end of their sentences, they will help to determine the new society being built in the colony. Advised by Tench that once a criminal always a criminal, he quotes Rousseau, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains"; and wonders whether if the prisoners are criminals "we might have made them that way?". Eventually, with the aid of Collins, he persuades his colleagues, to allow one of the junior officers to direct the prisoners in a play. "We belong to a country which has spawned great playwrights: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and in our time, Sheridan. The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It may remind them that there is more to life than crime and punishment. And we, this colony of a few hundred will be watching this together, for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers. We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little."

And, slowly, painstakingly, notwithstanding the difficulties—and the sadistic bullying of some of the guards—some of the convicts begin to respond. Playing other parts, and finding the resources in themselves to do so, they begin to see the possibilities of growth and change both for themselves and others. Finally, against all the odds they succeed triumphantly.

Wertenbaker's play is an eloquent and passionate statement about the transcendent power of theatre. But more than this it is also about the thrilling possibilities of change for us all. At the end of the play the audience continued to clap for almost a minute after the cast had left the stage. As well as applauding the actors and the wonderful script, it was easy to image that they might also have been reacting to the chance of exercising choice for themselves. The air seemed heady with intoxicating possibilities.

MICHAEL GILL