A reflection on Theatre Group’s ‘Our Country’s Good’, a play directed by Sammy Parmenter

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A few weeks ago, I went to watch ‘Our Country’s Good’, a play originally released in 1988 by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Despite the fact that plays constitute a large part of my literature degree, I had never been to see one performed at the university. So, my housemates and I decided we would abandon our typical trip to the pub for something a little more cultural. As much as I enjoy a pint, I have to say, this decision is one I don’t regret. On entering the Pyramid theatre, the actors had already adopted their roles, sitting huddled on a sand-covered stage set depicting coastal Australia. I have to commend the actors for their stillness whilst the audience took a good ten minutes to get themselves comfortable, until eventually, the play could begin…

This piece is set in the 1780s, and based on the transportation of British convicts to Australia. The original play predominantly focusses on the concept of colonization, and the impact that this had on the native Australians. However, in this rendition, the creative decision was made to omit the principal indigenous Australian character for modern ethical reasons, but also to focus more upon class and political divide between the convicts and the officers. This split between the powerless, vulnerable prisoners and the cruel, authoritarian guards who punish them, could present a hyperbolic microcosm of today’s political climate. The convicts are portrayed as misjudged, unjustly persecuted and emotionally intelligent human beings, causing the audience’s sympathies to lie with them. The only thing that redeems the officers, or at least one of them named Ralph Clark, is the construct of a frame narrative; that is to say, a play within a play. This causes the audience to consider whether the prison system is punitive or rehabilitative, both in contemporaneous and current settings, rendering the play’s subject matter universal.

Such timeless and relevant topics are one of the principal reasons that this play was so captivating, along with the artistic representation of themes. In particular, the way in which sand was manipulated intermittently by the actors throughout the play was both aesthetic but also purposeful. It appeared to represent the ownership of land and patriotic ideals, which were questioned throughout the play. Sammy Parmenter, the director, also suggests that sand symbolises the respect and worth of nature prevalent in aboriginal culture.

Having recently celebrated their one hundredth anniversary, LUU Theatre Group is well-established to say the least. It is one several university theatre and musical societies, and directs and performs around twelve plays a year, often those which are more classical or well-known. Considering the quality of the performance, I was surprised to discover that after casting, the actors had only one month to rehearse. Perhaps it sounds naïve, but it did not occur to me that students, most of whom are studying subjects totally unrelated to drama, would be so theatrically gifted. In particular, I was struck by the doubling of some characters, namely Sideway and Collins, both played by Josie Francis. Not only did she embody two male characters, but two completely contrasting roles. As an officer, she was formal, harsh and unlikeable. As a convict, she was expressive, captivating, and most of all, absolutely hilarious. Sammy and I discussed his decision to multirole, and more specifically to use blind gendering. This active decision demonstrates the fluidity and ability of the actors to adopt unfamiliar roles in the most convincing of ways. In the original play, the cast was constituted by seventeen men and five women. However, through his casting, Sammy suggests that it is no longer necessary to create a gender divide between actors. We also looked at the role of humour in a play with such serious subject matter. We discussed the role of the audience, and how their reaction can greatly influence the actors. Whilst laughing demonstrates audience engagement and provides the cast with confidence, by no means does muteness indicate disinterest. Indeed, in the sincerest and most beautiful moments of the play, such as the death of Harry Brewer and his lover’s consequential grieving, the audience was in fact, spellbound into silence.

Considering the immense effect of the quality of acting on the audience, Sammy and I considered the difficulties of casting. Aside from acting ability, he described the necessity of being culturally sensitive in the modern-day context. Evidently, one must consider cultural appropriation and the concept of type casting, which were dealt with very sensitively through slight character and script changes. Clearly, such choices entail high levels of directive responsibility, which according to Sammy, makes the role all the more rewarding. He expressed the need for organisation, as producing a play not only involves acting, but sorting out costumes and set, running fundraising events, and calmly overcoming more challenging rehearsals and backstage nerves, to list but a few. One thing that particularly struck me was his advice to the actors: “remember that you have a thought process”. Here, he refers to authenticity, essentially asking the cast to act in a way that evokes genuine human tendency. He also told me that the majority of actors who auditioned and who are part of the society in general are female, whilst most directors are male. This appears to reflect the broader world of theatre and film, yet we are the generation that can change this.

Here, I arrive at my central point. We are all well aware of academic stress and how overwhelming university life can be. Of course, this can put people off taking up an extra hobby, as it will require more time that we simply don’t have. However, the passion that the actors conveyed, the pride that radiated from Sammy whilst he spoke to me, and the influential and transformative effects of plays, dance, art, sport, and more, illustrates their worthwhile and valuable nature. In a world of increasing academic and job pressure causing rising levels of mental health issues, it seems fundamental to invest time in your passions, and to remind yourself how wonderful and fulfilling it feels to do something that you love.