Audiences this week are confronted by the floggings, hangings and day to day brutality of convicts’ lives in the first penal colony established off Botany Bay in Australia in 1788, in this award winning play.
The first voyages from England with more than 1,000 men and women prisoners, many of them found guilty of minor thefts induced by poverty, and barely out of their teens, took eight months to complete, and when they finally arrived they were further dismayed to find “a black, brittle burned out country” where stores were short and survival was risky.
Few of the officers accompanying them were gentlemen, often with more passion than compassion for the women prisoners, but one among the otherwise sadistic crew, 2nd Lt Ralph Clark (Richard Matthews) was chosen to stage a play with a small cast of convicts.
The rehearsals went on for five months, and although several of them were not able to read, they had plenty of time to learn their lines! The interplay between the actors, the jealousies, the egos, the emotions and the confidence and support that came from working as a company, interspersed by floggings and the disturbing threat of losing one of the women in the cast to the hangman, are at the core of the action.
History records that the First Fleet convicts did indeed put on a production in Botany Bay. Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker went to Wormwood Scrubs to watch long-term prisoners acting, before devising Our Country’s Good, which was first presented at the Royal Court Theatre in London 25 years ago.
This Mount’s Bay production was a seriously ambitious undertaking for the Next Stage Theatre Company, an amateur group directed by Ann Garner. Their home base is a converted chapel in Bath, with a 150 seat auditorium, which would suit this cast very well, but there was a lack of ‘conviction’ over the transfer to a much bigger stage.
Somehow they never escaped the claustrophobia of the hold on the convict ship, and on a fine moonlit opening night, some of the performances were too restrained and a key speech at the start of the second act was barely audible. The set was sparse, so why use irritatingly modern folding chairs in the Governor’s office?
But there were good moments too from a cast that doubled-up as both convicts and officers and Nicky Wilkins as the diffident wordsmith John Wisehammer made the most of his comic role, telling us firmly – “we left our country for our country’s good”.