Convicts in late 18th-century England were sent to a new penal colony on the far side of the world and faced a brutal life along the shores of wild lands, but the commander of the fleet of ships that transported them had another idea for how they should spend their time – stage a play.
That’s the premise of Franklin & Marshall College’s autumn production, “Our Country’s Good,” which is based on a true story, one of many about the founding of Australia.
“This is the story of the First Fleet,” said the play’s director, Carol Davis, F&M associate professor of theatre. “They were there to establish this penal colony and eventually colonize Australia.”
Commodore Arthur Phillip led the fleet’s two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict-filled transport ships to the Australian shores in the 1780s. Former colonies such as Virginia and Georgia, now part of the United States following the War of Independence, no longer accepted convicted British subjects.
“England’s penal system then had nothing to do with reform; it was to get criminals out of society,” Davis said. “Prisons were so overcrowded that old, decommissioned ships were used to house them. The Thames was full of these ships of convicts, which the system could not sustain for long.”
Hence, the colonial penal system, a backdrop to the play’s focus on a group of Royal Marine officers, Commodore Phillip, and the male and female convicts. The convicts had a choice: serve their sentences – from seven years to life – on distant shores or hang in the gallows.
“Phillip was a rather wise man and decided the convicts should put on a play because by speaking this elevated verse, by thinking of other things, by putting themselves in the shoes of other people, they might to some extent reclaim their humanity,” Davis said. “That’s exactly what happens and as we know, that’s what theatre does.”
The play explores themes such as forced migration – “It was an arduous journey of eight months to get there,” Davis said. “Many died on the way there, or in Australia, or on the way back.”
Another theme is class disparity. Most of those convicted were poor and disenfranchised. “They might steal a loaf of bread or might steal something from their employer, if they were a housekeeper, and they were sentenced to death for doing that,” she said.
The play’s dark tones are offset by comedy throughout the two acts, 22 scenes and a dozen locales, one of which is aboard ship. The stage settings in Schnader Theatre in Roschel Performing Arts Center include a large white sail.
The play has 22 characters, but Davis chose to cast just 13 actors, five women and eight men, to allow them to perform double roles. “Most of the actors are playing more than one role, most are playing both a convict and an officer, and some are playing both a female and a male character,” she said. “And some are playing Australian Aborigines.”
Written in 1988 by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, who adapted her work from the Thomas Keneally novel, “The Playmaker,” F&M’s performance is one of three for the 2018-19 academic year based on literary works and historical fact. It also has another distinction.
“All of the plays we’re doing this year are by women playwrights,” Davis said. “That’s the first time in F&M theatre history that the three mainstage productions are written by women.”
Performances for “Our County’s Good” are 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25-27; and 2 p.m. Oct. 28, in Schnader Theatre in the Roschel Performing Arts Center.