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The Carletonian

Players to explore Australia’s carceral history in Our Country’s Good

<icans think about Australia, some of the first few things that tend to come to mind are kangaroos, beaches, Steve Irwin and vegemite. The country’s history is often overlooked, and some are not even aware of its deep national roots in the British convict export system. This term’s Players Production, Our Country’s Good, explores this era of Australian history, which was integral in shaping the country into its contemporary form.

In the early 17th century, the British government began exporting convicts to the American colonies in an effort to reduce the expense and population of the extremely overcrowded British prison system. However, using America as a receptacle for its prisoners was no longer an option for the British government after the conclusion of the American Revolution. So, toward the end of the 18th century the British government had to look elsewhere, and Australia rose to the top of the list.

When Captain James Cook sailed to Australia in 1770, he claimed possession of its eastern coast for Britain, despite the fact that aboriginal Australians had been inhabiting the land for tens of thousands of years. In May 1787, Britain sent the First Fleet to establish its first penal colony in Australia. The First Fleet was comprised of eleven ships and between 1000 and 1500 passengers, including convicts, officers, seamen, marines, and free people. Over the next 81 years, Britain sent a total of around 162,000 convicts to Australia.

Our Country’s Good is a 1988 drama by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and is based on The Playmaker, a 1987 novel by Australian writer Thomas Keneally. The play opens with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay after an arduous nine month voyage. Many of the play’s characters are based on historical figures who were members of the First Fleet, although many of their names have been changed.

Our Country’s Good deals with the hardships of life for both the convicts and free settlers in Britain’s first penal colony in Australia and opens up discourse on the morality of punishment and incarceration as well as the impact of Britain’s penal settlements on Aboriginal people. In Our Country’s Good, the British officers have some of the convicts rehearse a play of its own. Wertenbaker’s incorporation of this element depicts theater as a humanizing force, and he attended a play performed by convicts at Wormwood Scrubs, a prison in inner-west London, to research before writing the piece.

Roger Bechtel, Chair of Theater and Dance, will be directing Carleton’s production of Our Country’s Good. The show involves a large ensemble, and is rich with captivating characters, making it a perfect vehicle to showcase what Bechtel describes as a large, talented group of junior and senior theater majors. Bechtel himself has seen two versions of the show, one of which was on Broadway.

“What disappointed me about both was their failure to take advantage of the theatricality of the play—it is, after all, about a play within a play, theater within theater. We’re trying to heighten the theatricality with bold staging and visual metaphor, as well as, in a Brechtian way, not attempting to hide the theatrical means of production—the lights, stage crew, and so on are all in plain view,” said Bechtel.

When asked about the period piece’s relevance in the modern era, Bechtel said, “The play deals with important and timeless concerns, particularly the tension between constraint and freedom. Constraint can be extreme and literal—it’s a play about a penal colony, of course—but constraint can be ideological, social, moral, personal. In the end, it’s about the power of art to transcend constraint, to help us find freedom even within intractable constraint. When I chose the play a year ago, it was far ahead of the [2016 Presidential] election. But its championing of the humane in the face of the abuse of power makes it a particularly timely inspiration and consolation now.”

Our Country’s Good debuts on May 6th at 7:30 in the Weitz Theater. Tickets are available online.

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