Australia 1789. A young lieutenant is directing rehearsals of the first play ever to be staged in that country – with only two copies of the text, a cast of convicts, and one leading lady who may be about to be hanged!
Between 1787 and 1868 Britain exiled 160,000 convicts to Australia, mostly never to return. The characters of the play are representative of the “First Fleet” which arrived at Botany Bay after 8 months at sea in January 1788. The fleet of eleven vessels carried 1,030 people including 548 male and 188 female convicts, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip in his flagship Sirius. The average age of the convicts was 27; mostly guilty of petty theft.
Transportation was the answer to an extreme problem – the English prisons were full; the loss of the American colonies meant prisoners could no longer be sent there to work on plantations; the fear of typhus was real. Transportation allowed England to dump its “criminal class” on the other side of the world, there to be forgotten!
“It is a palpable reminder to all of us that Australia was built on institutionalised injustice and barbarism, and on the scarred backs of men and women exiled from England for England's good” (Leonard Radic, The Age, 1989).
Wertenbaker says “I'm trying to write about how people are treated, what it means to be brutalised, what it means to live without hope, and how theatre can be a humanising force” (New York Times, Sept. 1990). One of the key themes of Our Country's Good is theatre's function and its potential to change lives.
In the summer of 1988 Timberlake Wertenbaker, together with the director (Max Stafford-Clark) and the actors of Our Country's Good went to HMP Wormwood Scrubs to see the long-term prisoners put on a performance of The Love of a Good Man. That night proved pivotal for the acting and writing of Our Country's Good, it confirmed to all who were there of the power and the value of theatre. Sometime later Timberlake Wertenbaker received a letter from a prisoner (one of the performers) at Blundeston Prison, Lowestoft – where he had been transferred – asking if he could put on Our Country's Good.
Our Country's Good premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1988 and won the Laurence Olivier Play of the Year Award. The Independent said "Rarely has the redemptive, transcendental power of theatre been argued with such eloquence and passion" and The Sunday Times also said that “Wertenbaker has searched history and found in it a humanistic lesson for hard modern times: rough, sombre undogmatic and warm”.