“Our Country's Good” at the Guthrie: Art, Hope, and Change

Whether a convict (or any of us) can truly change, and whether true redemption is possible, are the profound questions that run below the surface of Our Country’s Good, presented by the British companies Out of Joint and Octagon Theatre Bolton at the Guthrie. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s historical drama, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, takes place in an Australian penal colony amid government officials who don’t believe that prisoners can possibly transform into better people.

Still, the colony’s governor early on links theater to civilization itself, and this is essentially the theme for what follows. The criminals are given the opportunity to become better people, or at least (for some) to avoid hanging, by taking part in a play directed by Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Nathan Ives-Moiba); Clark only takes the job as director to gain brownie points from his superiors, but ends up believing in, and even loving, the convicts as equals.

Getting there doesn’t come easy. Clark’s convicts can neither read nor act. Rehearsals are counterproductive at best, and his actors keep disappearing. Through this chaos, director Max Stafford-Clark’s production relies on very straightforward scene/set changes, and actors tackling multiple parts—22 roles by 10 actors who switch onstage identities with impressive ease.

Anna Tierney, who plays both Lieutenant Johnston and Duckling Smith, is among performers who evoke themes of change, power, and inequality—evoking struggles both universal and particular to women. At times on opening night, it was hard to know whether or not to laugh when derogatory and abusive sentiments were directed at female performers as part of the story—it seemed symbolic of women’s historic silence, and walked a line between crude humor and downright meanness. 

There’s vast comic relief here throughout scenes that are not always the easiest to watch. Liz Morden (Kathryn O’Reilly), for instance, one of the female convicts, at one point is faced with execution by hanging even after she said convincingly protests her innocence. We see supposed leaders who are opposed to the rehabilitation of convicts on any human level—in their mind, once a convict, always a convict.

Our Country’s Good walks a mix of strong emotions with poignant depth, reminding us how often life’s darkness is dealt with using humor as a defense mechanism. (Prisoner Dabby Bryant, played by Victoria Gee, is always laughing at something, appropriate or not, in the corner during rehearsals.) Finally, we feel that people can indeed hope to change, and leave with the hopeful sense that the country in everyone’s heart is, at least potentially, good.