The Revival of a Classic Reminds Us of the Humanizing and Transformative Power of Arts
There are burglaries. There are shootings. Arsons. Bombings. Murders. The world we live in is not a very peaceful place. The perpetrators of these crimes—the “criminals”—are sometimes nabbed, convicted, and punished. Sometimes they remain at large, free to plot and execute more crimes. We could hardly care less. But once in a while a play like Our Country’s Good comes by, shakes us by our lapels, and makes us question.
What is the relation between crime and punishment?
What is the purpose of punishment—reform or retribution?
When does retribution cease to be justice and degrade to the level of merciless revenge?
Can reform lead to redemption? Is Arts therapeutic and can it be a vehicle of reform?
Nadia Fall’s production, Our Country’s Good, revives the 1988 play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, which is an adaptation from a novel by Thomas Keneally. Wertenbaker’s play is a literary cult, a humanist classic that hurls difficult questions at us and makes us ponder over the fairness and efficacy of societal systems. It is not surprising that A-level English teachers love this play!
The play is set during the 18th century when the practice was to ship English convicts—seen as society’s scourge—to prisons in Australia. Obviously, the general opinion was that criminals are beyond reform. So, as if to cleanse England, these convicts were banished to the Australian wilderness, sometimes for crimes as petty as stealing a candlestick.
Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark decides to stage a play—George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer—in one such penal colony in New South Wales. The cast will be a group of convicts. The play will be staged as part of the celebrations for the King’s birthday, but Ralph also claims that his efforts are actually attempts at “civilizing” the convicts by giving them voice and empowering them to express themselves.
Our Country’s Good follows the events that takes place during the rehearsal of Farquhar’s play, exposes the brutalities that the outcasts were subjected to in these far-off penal colonies, and reveals the mindsets of the resident Royal Marine officers who, unlike Ralph, did not believe that theater can reform “criminals.”
The actors in Nadia Fall’s production deliver powerful and energetic performances as convicts whose hopes have been snatched away and who have been forced to leave their own country—“for our country’s good,” as one convict observes—to spend the rest of their lives in misery, tortured and treated like dirt.
Systems can be repressive, as the treatment of the British convicts, both at home and in the Australian colonies, proves. Men, who are a part of these systems, can be rigid in their views, as the attitudes of the officers at the penal colony, other than Ralph, prove. But, theater can lift pall, gloom, and darkness, as the ripples of laughter and humor that flow around when the convicts rehearse, prove.
Through Ralph we realize that theater has given the convicts a sense of purpose. For the first time since they were thrown into the cramped and dark hulls of the transportation ship, the convicts have something to look forward to. Theater has brought together a bunch of outcasts and has given them a sense of belonging, an emotion they had not felt since they were separated from their loved ones back home.
Our Country’s Good is an ode to theatre and in a broader sense, to all disciplines of Art. But by bringing back Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play into our conversations, Nadia Fall has also triggered some deep soul-searching. We are again plagued by questions.
Are criminals born or created? Does society have a hand in their making?
If we are to believe in the inherent and essential goodness of man, then can society shrug off its responsibilities by sending the criminals it has reared to exile?
Have we created regressive systems that hurtle man towards doom instead of empowering him to prosper or giving him a second chance?
These are tough questions. The play doesn’t provide the answers. Nor does it suggest revamping the legislations or overhauling the systems. But it definitely forces us to acknowledge the transformative power of Arts. It is time we realized that we DO have a weapon in our hands to give voice to the powerless and spread hope.