In 1789, barely a year after the First Fleet of convicts and marines arrived in New South Wales, the governor, Arthur Phillip – who was a remarkable and unusual man – made the remarkable and unusual suggestion that the convicts stage a play. The chosen piece was ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar, and the chosen playmaster was a junior officer called Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark.
Out of this unusual and remarkable story the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker crafted a funny and moving play called Our Country’s Good, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 1988. Now the National Theatre is giving the play a welcome revival, but maybe it was the vastness of the Olivier stage that dissipated much of the intimacy of the relationships at the heart of the play, or the slow pace of the action (it was a second preview), but somehow the joyful, redemptive play that I remember from all those years ago was not as moving or as funny as I was expecting.
The director has made the unusual decision to cast Afro-Caribbean actors in the roles of Governor Phillip and the witty and elegant Watkin Tench. I am all for colour-blind casting but since this is partly a story of the colonisation of a black country by a white one, in this instance it is just confusing. The aboriginal community is represented by one actor (one more than in the BBC TV series ‘Banished’), who observes, and dances, and eventually speaks his thoughts (in cultured English, another jarring note).
But all power to the actors, and in particular to Jason Hughes (Midsommer Murders) who manages to turn the uptight, slightly humourless Ralph Clark into a warm and interesting human being; and to Lee Ross, who takes on the role of the ‘thespian’ Sideway and makes him both hilarious and totally believable. The music is an unusual (and remarkable) mix of gospel, slave-song and guitar, with just the right mix of didgeridoo – previously recorded in Australia I believe.
In preparation for seeing the play I have been re-reading Keneally’s book. He calls it a novel, but more surprisingly he states that ‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental’. However virtually all his characters, from the governor and his bad-tempered deputy Major Robbie Ross to the convicts Robert Sideway and Mary Brennan – who Clark casts in his play and with whom he later had a child – were not only real people but are represented by Keneally pretty accurately.
In his Author’s Note Keneally acknowledges ‘… that in making this fiction he found rich material in such works as ‘The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark … and David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Out of idle curiosity I glanced through both of these to find that while Clark kept intimate diaries of some of his early years in the colony the relevant period in 1789 is missing. And all Collins has to say about it was: ‘The anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day … was observed with every distinction in our power; … the detachment of marines fired three vollies, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove … and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than “humbly to excite a smile,” and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.’
So all power to Thomas Keneally and to Timberlake Wertenbaker for drawing to our attention such a remarkable (and unusual) event in the earliest days of the colony. And to the National Theatre for transporting us temporarily to that remarkable and much-ignored (in this country) continent.
Finally – a note to the programme compilers: Norfolk Island is not off the coast of Tasmania.
 An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Chapter VII. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/colacc1.pdf