What differentiates a criminal from an aristocrat?
According to Our Country’s Good, the new production from Theatre UNB, not much more than the clothes on their backs.
Written in 1990 by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, the play revolves around a sorry lot of criminals in 1780s Australia, when it was less a nation and more a dumping ground for the human refuse of the British Empire. Against this sordid backdrop, a group of sympathetic guards attempt to pass the time through staging a play with their inmates — and in the process, re-discover their shared humanity.
For director Len Falkenstein, this was a chance to stage one of the most acclaimed and produced plays of the last 25 years, and one he’s taught personally in the past.
“It tells a fascinating true story from history, it has a sharp edge of political and social commentary in its critical examination of such things as the ideology behind colonialism and the brutal class and gender divisions in 18th century society, and it contains a mixture of profound and poignant drama and emotion alongside a lot of great comedy and comic moments,” he explained.
Far from a lightweight drama, Our Country’s Good draws heavily upon many contemporary themes while telling its story — nature vs. nurture, the transformative power of theatre, and the arbitrary class divisions that have long kept society divided.
“The play shows that the difference between an upper-class lord and a low-life pickpocket is purely a matter of the level of wealth they were born into, and the clothes they have to wear — there’s nothing natural or right about those distinctions,” said Falkenstein. “So theatre is dangerous because it shows how artificial those distinctions are.”
Our Country’s Good also requires its actors to play dual — and in some cases, triple — roles, switching between officers and prisoners on the fly. For actress Kat Hall, who plays two characters — convict Liz Morden and Lieutenant George Johnston — the role offers some fresh challenges.
“Liz is an interesting character to play — I’ve never had to play ‘scary’ before,” she said. “There’s a lot of dark stuff going on with her, and she follows a pretty dramatic character arc. I’ve played multiple characters in a show before — TUNB’s The Odyssey relied heavily on that. I played everything from Helen of Troy to a pig, so this isn’t too bad for myself.”
Ultimately, Falkenstein hopes that the audience will learn to empathize with the play’s roster of seemingly incorrigible criminals.
“You learn how they ended up where they are, often as a result of circumstances that are heart-wrenching and beyond their control,” he said. “We like to keep our criminals faceless and anonymous — it better allows us to believe they are bad people, unlike us, who deserve where they end up. The play shows that is often deeply untrue.”
Our Country’s Good runs Jan. 27 to Jan. 31 nightly at Memorial Hall. The show starts at 8 p.m., doors open at 7:45 p.m. Tickets: $15 regular admission, $10 senior, $8 student.