As the lights dim, and the steward throws a casual thumbs up to the lighting desk very close behind you, it is of course a shock to suddenly hear “Forty-four… forty-five… forty-six” being shouted from the wing, the lines only broken by the screams of a male convict receiving a sentence of lashings. The hushed laughter of pre-show conversation is still audible in your memory and you are shocked into a state of abrupt horror as the man is dragged on stage, dripping with blood. You wonder how – with a title which now seems so ironic – ‘Our Country’s Good’ will transition into a play in which hope glimmers.
Performed by DramaSoc, impeccably casted, they somehow manage that transition, carefully weighing tragedy and comedy so that pathos is injected into both dramatic forms. The theatrical tale of a group of convicts, exiled to Australia, living in a penal colony managed by English Royal Marines is played out not four feet from where you, as the audience, are sat, and therefore it is hard not to be engaged and immersed in the atmosphere on stage.
Not until the notion of the ‘play within a play’ is introduced into the dialogue does comic relief interlace the acts of inhumanity and the theme of prisoner’s rights in ‘Our Country’s Good’. The theme of escapism that this play explores is shared with the audience and it is important. The convicts are given a play – ‘The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey’ – to rehearse, in an effort to lift them above the horrors of their reality, to redeem their humanity, and all arguments for this being an act of pacification are stilled in the warmth and intimacy of these rehearsal scenes. In Act II when Sideway, wonderfully portrayed by Josh Welch, overcomes Major Ross’ vulgar and violent intrusion of their rehearsal, the power and bravery of his words, lifted from the script, demonstrates how whether one is speechless by force or in horror, goodness in the words of others can serve to comfort and empower.
The rendering of this historical play, a success for DramaSoc in all its detail and sophistication, gave life to the script, voices to the words and its catharsis was almost complete, but not enough to leave satisfied. As an audience member, it is this dissatisfaction that is then carried with you into reality, armed and ready to speak out, because you can.