Our Country’s Good advertises itself as a play about the lives of the first convicts to arrive in Australia and the breaking down of barriers between convicts and officers through theatre. Whilst it does this wonderfully, it does not warn you about the uncomfortable tone set from the very first scene, showing the convicts being lashed and screaming out in pain on a boat on their way to the colony. The audience were now aware of the hierarchy; but were yet to see how this plays out for the remainder of the show.
As the first half progresses, we are introduced the all the characters and an idea is brought up to get the convicts to put on a show – Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – in a bid to try to redeem them. The officers are divided on the topic, with some embracing the idea and others scoffing at it. All of the actors play both the convict and officer with the exceptions of Ralph (Jacob Baird) and Ross (Amelia Watson). Watson gives a brilliant performance throughout the play, playing Ross as an unforgiving stubborn officer who sees the convicts nothing more than an errand to be dealt with; yet her character is probably the least complex. Ralph, on the other hand, is slightly more conflicted. Baird plays him first as a naïve man, who misses his wife deeply and has a deep devotion to the theatre. Later, we see a man with deeper desires and affections for another woman, a pretty convict named Mary (Anna Phillips). The best part, however, is Baird’s trajectory from naivety to infidelity is only a glimpse into how fine the line between convict and officer is, one of the strongest portrayed themes of the play.
Though some portrayals showed the contrasts between convict and officer, other characters showed disturbing similarities. The characters Dabby and Campbell (Hannah Robinson), Liz and Dawes (Tiffany Garnham), Wisehammer and Phillip (Matthew Sedman) were by far the strongest in terms of treading the line between convict and officer, highlighting that there may be little difference after all. When playing Dabby, Robinson brought out an eccentric, theatrical quality that showed the convict in a different light. When playing Campbell, we saw the unforgiving sidekick of Watson’s character who drew fun out of bringing pain to the convicts; crazy, but in a completely different manner. Garnham plays Dawes as a looney distant officer and Liz as a difficult, always-on-edge convict; and Sedman playing the slightly stuck-up but good natured Phillip to become a soft-hearted, literary gifted Wisehammer often picked on for being Jewish. The simple costume change of the officers wearing a yellow coat over the convict’s clothes was another subtle, clever way of showing the fine differences between officers and convicts.
One of the most heart-warming aspects of the show was seeing how some of the convicts grew as people when playing different characters. While some convicts struggled initially (Dabby trying to “establish her melancholy” by screaming) others blossomed, with Jack McConnell’s character Arscott saying he forgot who he was when playing his role. Ralph, though impatient, began to believe in his actors. Simultaneously, however, we had convict Harry (Gordon Stackhouse) who gave a strong performance of the mentally unstable convict who eventually succumbs to his insanity and Liz is also put on trial for stealing food from the camp, her punishment to be hanged to death; the direction here deserved to be praised. These 2 incidents gave an uncomfortable reminder to the audience that while some of the convicts were progressing, some still struggled to be redeemed but more importantly, forgiven.
Nevertheless, the show ended on a high note. The play is put on and the audience saw the officers and convicts are somewhat united, albeit in a small way. In times where prisoners are often ridiculed for having the rights they have, Bedlam Theatre’s decision to put on Our Country’s Good is well-timed.