Tobacco Factory

Our Country’s Good

April 2019

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Botany Bay's thespian jailbirds

In darkness the scene is brutally set. The audience is subjected to the crack and swish of a severe convict lashing. Then the soothing, musical voice of a lone Aboriginal Australian witnessing the arrival of the first convict ship in Botany Bay in 1788, rammed with England’s criminal dross and unhappy soldiers who give women prisoners food in return for sex. When the hold is opened, the brightest melting sun beats down on those forced to people the new land.

We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature’

So opens Timberlake Wertenbaker’s powerfully humane play, based on a true story, described in The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally. It’s about the redemptive power of art amongst the seemingly irredeemable. The perennial question of whether punishment or art has the most chance of changing human behaviour. Vital for times when the arts have been whipped and slashed to the bone.

Director Ann Girvan said: “The high regard for the restorative powers of theatre is a far cry from how our Government and education system seem to deem it: a luxurious extra-curricular hobby.”

Under her sure direction the play explores what it means to lose everything, to be ashamed, poor and outcast but have the chance to allow art to turn your life around. It is proposed public hangings that lead to an argument in this alien and vast, boiling-hot land of deadly snakes and spiders. Just how do you keep criminals toeing the line? Punishment or civilised entertainment and imagining you aren’t at the end of the world but are an upmarket lady in Shrewsbury?

Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, ably played by Joseph Tweedle, steps tentatively forward with the idea of a play. George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, a comedy of gentile manners. The equally gentle Lieutenant, has no idea what he’s taken on or how much he’ll change from the moral man with a wife in England whose picture he kisses but has never seen naked, to falling in love with his main character, a whore. His mostly illiterate cast, are as compliant as a herd of cats. He changes them slowly and they, in turn, transform him. It is at times, very funny and moving. This is a land peopled by suffering and a play which is charged with hope and humour. 

Girvan moves the drama on at tidy pace and the often, chaotic rehearsals with some soldier’s sadistic interruptions and one leading lady is almost hung because she was charged with being involved with the escape of a prisoner. With a light, almost sleight of hand, ideas are tackled about criminality, punishment and sex, whether it is nature or nurture that makes us turn to good or evil and if art can help us rise above poverty and class, calamitous rehearsals and overblown egos.  

There’s a stunning speech given by hardened criminal Liz Morden, brilliantly played by Kim Heron, which explores how she was dragged up to be dragged out to Australia, using language you really have to pay attention to, which is beautiful, violent, poetic and at times just on the edge of comprehension. I loved the chemistry between play-director Ralph and the convict, Mary, he falls for played shyly by Paksie Vernon.

For me, the only flaw was the relationship between convict Duckling (Sasha Frost) and Midshipman Harry Brewer (Charleen Qwaye) – not for the acting but one minute Duckling wants to escape him and the next she’s devastated by death. I adored the deadpan comic performance of tough female prisoner, Dabby Bryant (Heather Williams) who longs only to go home to Devon and feel soft English rain on her face. And the totally over the top, pick-pocketing thespian Robert Sideway (Danann Mcaleer) as he teaches the cast how to flamboyantly bow.

This is a witty, clever and thought-provoking play which focusses on the morality of crime and punishment and the possibility of better futures. As part of research the team met with inmates of HMP Dartmoor and discovered that those prisoners who had become involved in theatre never offended again.

It was the dreamy Aboriginal voice that hung over the play exploring how these people dropped there as if from the sky, bringing with them lethal diseases. I loved how her voice bound the play together, softly spinning a very bleak take on the idea of civilisation.

Special praise also to set designer Anna Reid, lighting Designer Chris Swain, composer and sound designer, Keegan Curran, fight director Kaitlin Howard and assistant director Alison Cowling.

Melanie Greenwood