BBC Radio 4, 17 December 2011
Sally Avens' revival of Our Country's Good (1988), adapted from
Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, focused on the idea of frustrated expectations. The penal colony
governor Captain Arthur Philip (Nicholas le Prevost) believed in benevolent paternalism; rather than subjecting the convicts
in his charge to perpetual humiliation, he wanted to have them perform a play, in the hope that they could be reformed. The
director of the production, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Paul Higgins), tried to rehearse The Recruiting Officer over
a long period of time, despite frequent absences of individual cast members. However both Philip's and Clark's intentions seemed
doomed: Clark's superior officers, notably Major Robbie Ross (Stuart McQuarrie) resented the whole idea of convicts
performing a play, while the convicts themselves kept getting into trouble. John Arscott (Ralph Ineson) was kept in chains
and sentenced to one hundred and fifty lashes for being involved in an abortive escape attempt.
The convicts experienced similar frustrations: Liz Morden (Kate Fleetwood) was wrongly
condemned to death for stealing; her punishment that she no longer had the chance to participate in the play. She responded
by taking a vow of silence, believing that there was no point in accepting the officers' authority any more.
Avens' emphasis on frustration underlined the fact that, despite the deep social
divisions between officers and convicts in the colony, everyone shared the same destiny. They were all cooped up together
on a remote island, with only three months' supply of food left; if a ship did not come to their aid, they would all
die. The knowledge of this created a pressure-cooker situation, in which officers and convicts alike were liable to react
with extreme violence. This was certainly the case with Ross, who vented his frustrations by abusing the convicts,
both physically and verbally.
In this kind of atmosphere, Avens showed that accepted strategies of person
management (Philip's benevolent paternalism, Clark's naive idealism or Ross's brute force) could never hope to succeed. The
importance of this was never more clearly illustrated in two ghostly sequences - introduced by unearthly music played
on a synthesizer - where Midshipman Harry Brewer (Rikki Lawton) was tormented by the ghosts of two men whom he had hanged.
To reflect on the past or the future only led to madness; everyone (officers and convicts alike) had to
live for the moment instead. The cast of The Recruiting Officer understood this, just before the performance began;
with their hearts uplifted, they strode boldly on to the improvised stage. As they
delivered Farquhar's lines, their voices gradually faded away, to be replaced by a triumphal extract from Beethoven's
This terrific production was informed by a post-colonial point of view, emphasizing
the importance of transcending the kind of class, race and gender prejudices which invariably cause resentment
and/or anarchy. In an atmosphere of shared understanding, where Clark could happily act alongside the convicts, the inhabitants
of the colony at last discovered something about themselves and how to relate to one another.