In the 1780’s, most people in Britain were not willing to give up their daily comforts to embark on a lengthy, trying journey to some far away colony to start a new, rough life. Not everyone had the free will to be able to refuse to participate in British colonization. In fact, Britain sent convicts to New South Wales (among other colonies) to serve as pioneers. This was also an attempt to eradicate the lower class of criminals from British cities. In “Our Country’s Good”, a play adapted from the novel “The Playmaker”, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker explores life in a penal colony in Australia when a governor decides that having the prisoners put on a play could lead them to redemption.
Director Barbara Kelly brought “Our Country’s Good” to Montreal as a presentation by the Professional Theatre Program of Dawson College, running from January 27th to February 6th. Anton May, one of the lead actors, beautifully gives life to the character of 2nd lieutenant Ralph Clark, who fights for the governor’s idea that theatre is an expression of civilization. His motivation originally stems from a desire to move up a rank, but later evolves into a heartfelt attempt to aid the convicts in their process of re-education. The actor’s posture and expressions realistically render his character’s emotional development, thus allowing the audience to sympathize with him. Midshipman Harry Brewer’s psychological torment resulting from having hung a convict who had been involved with his beloved girlfriend, also a prisoner, is made clear to the audience as his drinking and outbursts grow increasingly intense throughout the play. Steven Robinchaud takes on this difficult role marvelously, with just the right amount of emotional intensity for the audience to share his feelings of despair, and regret.
In any group, there is always one person with more energy, with more sparkle in their eyes, with more enthusiasm. In this performance, Emilie Plante is that person – both as an actress, and as her character; shy, intelligent convict Mary Brenham. Her British accent remains strong, yet natural throughout the play. Yvonne Léa is hilarious in her role as the colony’s most rebellious prisoner, Liz Morden, inciting laughter as her character attempts to play a rich, well-educated woman in a scene that brings out the differences between the convicts and the characters they represent in their rendition of “The Recruiting Officer”. Loïc Di Francesco also brings energy to the play as prisoner Robert Sideway, the clown of the group, whose overly-exaggerated personality creates an interesting dynamic as he interacts with other members of the colony. Emilia Luciano gets the most laughs out of the audience as Captain Jemmy Campbell, whose drunkenness is a source of comedy that also speaks for the addiction problems that can arise when living through hardship.
On many levels, “Our Country’s Good” is a little hard to digest. The subject matter, though artfully rendered witty, makes one stop and think about the dehumanization of these prisoners who’ve been torn away from life as they knew it, for the good of their country. Tension and discomfort reigned in the theatre in scenes where authority figures would reprimand the convicts, particularly when making fun of their “modesty”.
Australian music accompanies set changes, immersing the audience in the cultural setting of the play, while gentle colors and well-directed lighting shows the time of day in a subtle manner. The different dialects of characters from various parts of Britain are generally upheld throughout the performance, though some actors and actresses lose their accent more often than others.
Present during opening night was a group of girls from Villa Maria High School. When asked what they thought about the play, they responded that, “it was good”, but in the non-committed, non-detailed way that teenagers usually have of answering that type of question. However, they brought up a strong point about the actors’ performance when asked whether they, as actresses, were learning anything. The girls were fairly unanimous in noting that “expressions are really important” in conveying emotion. They were right to say so, as the actors from the Professional Theatre Program of Dawson College, really brought their characters to life through body language and facial expressions, putting on an entertaining and heartwarming show.
Written By: Katherine Willcocks
Originally Published: February 2016