Saturday was a Guthrie Theater day. We saw a challenging and interesting drama from Britain, Our Country's Good.
Our Country's Good is a 1990 play written by British playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, adapted from the Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker. The story concerns a group of Royal Marines and convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales, in the 1780s, who put on a production of The Recruiting Officer.I found it engaging and a play that made me think about the power of art- specifically theater and story telling. The audience seemed to be puzzled by it. It wasn't as straightforward as some might like. It is done in a “sketch-scene” way that has a more experimental style to it. The cast played multiple roles- prisoners and guards- which impacted the style. As I said I found it engaging. One scene in particular grabbed me.
In the 1780s, convicts and Royal Marines were sent to Australia as part of the first penal colony there. The play shows the class system in the convict camp and discusses themes such as sexuality, punishment, the Georgian judicial system, and the idea that it is possible for ‘theatre to be a humanising force'.
In the scene and costume change the some of the cast stood still at the front of the stage while other things were going on. Several of them held the wigs that would have indicated their British persona. The character closest to me stood there with the wig held out in front of her. Then, in very deliberate action, she took the wig and placed it on her head. She went from prisoner to guard in a brief moment.
We are all both prisoner and guard; we are all just one scene change from a different life than we have been living. Whether it is a single act of crime- or the accident of birth- we are all the same.
As to the "humanizing" action of theater (and the arts, by extension)? Well, that was the whole idea. yes, in the play it works that way- or at least implies that it does. But it went beyond that. It felt like a similar story to Les Miserables. The basic debate was whether "criminals" are able to be rehabilitated. The Jaevert-types believed that this was an impossibility. Once bad- always bad. But there is always a Jean Valjean who challenges that. The playwright and producers of this play believe (like Victor Hugo) that change is possible.
Such is a debate that never goes away. Sadly. Maybe we need to continue to challenge the Jaeverts of the world who insist that redemption isn't possible and that the only way to deal with "these people" is punishment- and punishment forever.
I, for one, am glad Jesus didn't believe that!