For most people, the image of a convict living in prison and the image of a sensitive actor baring his soul onstage could not be more different. It seems as if these are two worlds that would never collide, but in the play “Our Country’s Good” — written by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the novel “The Playmaker” by Thomas Keneally — a group of prisoners break the mold of expectation and discover a love for theater. These passionate actors will be played by another passionate group of actors in an upcoming University of Utah student production. Directed by U of U professor Sarah Shippobotham, this production will be the final play of the 2017-2018 Theatre department season.
In the 1780s, British ships set sail to a new colony in Australia, led by a group of Royal Marines. This new settlement was not to be used for economic growth or military strategy — instead, the area became a penal colony to hold petty criminals. As the conditions of the colony grow increasingly bleak, the lieutenants in charge develop a surprising plan to stage a play using the prisoners as cast members. The convicts audition for roles in the Irish comedy “The Recruiting Officer” by George Farquhar. Ultimately, the characters find that their work in theater is healing and fulfilling in ways they could never have imagined. “Our Country’s Good” portrays the preparations for this new project while also discussing the issues underlying this era of British history.
The subject material may seem out of the ordinary, but is based on true events. Many characters in the play are inspired by actual people from the Australian penal colony. “The Recruiting Officer” was the first play performed in the Colony of New South Wales and even has modern parallels. In 2002, an episode of the radio show “This American Life” described a production of “Hamlet” performed entirely by inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. In a way, this odd combination makes sense. As both the play and real-life examples point out, prisoners are placed in an environment that often denies their basic humanity. Without any normal obligations or connections to the outside world, creating art becomes a bridge to civilization and beauty. As the play tells a fascinating story laced with historical and social commentary, “Our Country’s Good” directly examines the power theatre has to transform, uplift and inspire. This subject matter makes it a perfect capper to the U’s season, as it argues that creating art is a beautiful and necessary act, even in the most unlikely of places.
“Our Country’s Good” will run at the Babcock Theatre from April 6-8 and 12-15 at 7:30 p.m., with additional 2:00 p.m. matinees on April 14 and 15. A post-show discussion will be included on April 13. The show contains adult content and language that may be inappropriate for children. Tickets are free with a U student ID. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit theatre.utah.edu.