By Elizabeth Evans
Imagine being imprisoned for a crime you didn't commit, and then deported to an unknown climate, facing untold and unjust punishments - how would you cope?
LUU Theatre Group's production of Justin Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good explores the livelihood, hardship and relationships of a group of British convicts deported to Australia at the turn of the 19th century. Described by the director, Sammy Parmenter, as 'a play about a play' - a mildly terrifying phrase conjuring images of Glee-style puerility - it was easy to be sceptical at first.
However, my fears were soon put to bed. For the most part, the play follows the deportation of a small group of convicts in their attempt to live a bearable and dignified life during their time in Australia - despite the torture and injustice they face at the hands of the British military there. In tune with the Enlightenment, it is decided that the convicts should stage a production of The Recruiting Officer as an attempt at reform, with surprising end results.
Melding themes of crime, violence and abuse with the light-heartedness of a play within a play, the actors handled every scene with empathy and confidence, their characters convincing and relatable despite the vast gap between our world and theirs. With several members of the cast taking on dual roles, special mention goes out to Josie Francis as Robert Sideway/David Collins, switching deftly between the contrasting characters, simultaneously bringing Slideway’s wit and dark humour to otherwise solemn scenes, and gravity to the character of Collins. In the leading role, Matty Edgar playing Ralph Clark also stood out among the rest, hi s monologues captivating the audience amid scenes action and violence.
Complementing the cast, the abstract set seemed to morph around the characters themselves - becoming a ship, officers’ quarters, beach and stage - under Parmenter's direction. The only element detracting from the production was the music. Granted, it was apt and complemented the direction, scenery and costume of the play, but at times the sound level was overbearing and prevented the actors from attracting the attention they deserved.
Appearing far from a mere student led production, this is a poignant piece of theatre, which brought light to a little-discussed, yet pivotal, period of British and Colonial history. Although perhaps not one for the faint-hearted, I would recommend this to anyone, no matter their knowledge of the subject matter.
The Recruiting Officer gave its characters the chance to transform themselves from convicts to citizens during their play; Our Country's Good transformed its cast from students to stars for the night.