The lights fade up to reveal exhausted prisoners lying on the ground with a fleet of ships in the horizon. It is a scene that could be taken out of a history book, but in reality, it is the opening moment of the University’s department of theatre and dance production, “Our Country’s Good.”
The plot of “Our Country’s Good” is based on the true story of Australia’s colonization by British prisoners. After being shipped to Australia, the trapped British convicts put on a production of the play “The Recruiting Officer,” creating art in the toughest of environments. In the process, the relationships and conflicts between the guards and prisoners are explored.
“The whole idea of the British settling Australia with convicts … and putting on a play, is such an interesting idea and it’s true,” said James Daniels, director of “Our Country’s Good and a senior lecturer in the department.”
Though set in a harsh environment, “Our Country’s Good” explores the theme of creating art in unfavorable conditions in both comedic and dramatic ways.
“This theme about the redemptive power of the arts sounds all highfalutin and intellectual but it’s an enormously important theme,” Daniels said. “That’s what this theme is about, but it’s presented in a really dramatic and very funny way.”
It is this complex dynamic paired with Daniels’ familiarity with the script that made the show enjoyable and interesting for him to direct.
“I was in it 20 years ago and I love it,” Daniels said. “It’s a great script. It’s a great play. In terms of tackling something and solving a lot of creative challenges, this is a great play to work on.”
This production of “Our Country’s Good” will be held in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre which has a thrust stage that allows audience members to be seated on three sides of the stage instead of one. This setting inspired the set design and creates an intimate environment for the audience.
“The very fact that we’re in a three-quarters thrust kind of defines how the show’s got to be done,” Daniels said. “So you get the aboriginal world, you get the cargo of the English world that’s being brought over, and you get this fleet of English ships in the background, and you even literally get what appears to be the worlds crashing into each other.“
This merging of different worlds required the cast to study a culture and period in history completely different from their own.
Ian Eisenberg, theatre and dance sophomore who plays the villain Major Robble Ross, prepared for his role by reading Thomas Keneally’s “The Playmaker,” on which the show “Our Country’s God” was based.
“With this huge cast, we’ve all done as much research as we can because these are historical people,” Eisenberg said. “We want to make sure we tell their stories as honestly as we can. They weren’t just prisoners here, they created this beautiful piece of art, and it has been able to live on.”
For Shanaya Kapai, theatre and dance sophomore who plays Mary Brenham, the most rewarding part of her research was pairing her character’s unfamilar emotions with a foreign Cockney accent.
“Incorporating [an accent] with the characteristics of a convict — understanding what a convict has been through, learning and feeling what they could have felt — has probably been my favorite part of the show,” Kapai said.
Another way the cast incorporated “Our Country’s Good’s” historical past was through adding old sailor songs to the script. In order to make the production realistic, the prisoners sing together in key moments of the show. Eisenberg said that officers and prisoners used to sing these sort of songs while on long ship rides as a form of unity and entertainment.
“We wanted to make them seem more human,” Eisenberg said. “They are all comrades. They are all brothers. They are all together in a way.”