Mandatory sentences for petty crimes, no funding for the arts, the labelling of women… What sounds like the present-day Canadian political climate is actually the basis of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, Our Country’s Good, being presented this week by the fourth year University of Winnipeg Acting Honours class at the Gas Station Theatre.
This is the second time that the university’s theatre department is staging Wertenbaker’s 1988 play about convicts and Royal Marines being sent to Australia in the 1780s to start the first penal colony on this “new” land. Historically, most of these convicts had been sent away for such small crimes as stealing a candlestick, or food for their family, and many were women.
Disappointed by the convicts’ behaviour in the new colony, Governor Arthur Phillip suggests that the prisoners put on a play for something to do as a team.
While there are some mishaps, it is through this play, The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, that the convicts grow as human beings. The group takes their work very seriously, because really, there is nothing else to do during their incarceration.
“We’re honouring the theatre,” cast member Devan Gingrich, 21, says. “Because that’s what the play is about, redemption through theatre. And how theatre is integral to a society and can change thoughts and can revolutionize, really.
“Theatre brings people together. The play also brings us as actors together.”
Most of the cast members are playing multiple characters based upon real people who sailed with the First Fleet to Australia. Joining the mainly female cast of fourth-years is third-year Acting Honours student Justin Otto, and recent Honours graduate Eric Rae.
Gingrich plays Liz Morden, whom the cast refers to as “the baddest bitch on the cellblock.”
“She’s the one that really needs theatre. She needs to be redeemed.”
“It is truly an ensemble piece,” Gingrich says. “There’s no one person who owns the show or takes it over.
“Everyone has a journey within the piece, and no matter if you are only in five scenes, your journey is still charted, or still important to the story of these historical people. We’re honouring these historical people, and we need all of us to trust each other to be able to do that.”
Gingrich says the play is relevant now more than ever, with the recent passing of Bill C-10, and the closure of the Vancouver Playhouse.
“We’re giving harsher sentences to criminals for petty crimes, and we’re not funding the arts to help anybody.”
The group’s final production together as a class brings a few new elements for the cast. Rather than being double, or even triple cast, each of the cast members has their own character. They are also on stage for the entire show.
“It’s hard,” Gingrich says. “It’s draining, but it’s exhilarating. We’re always in there, much like these convicts and officers were in Australia, we’re stuck, together, on this stage. This is our prison.”
Our Country’s Good, presented by the University of Winnipeg’s Theatre and Film Department, is on now until Saturday, March 31 at the Gas Station Theatre. Tickets are free, but reservations are recommended, and can be placed by calling 786-9152 or by visiting http://theatre.uwinnipeg.ca. Visit the website for further information and showtimes.
Published in Volume 66, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 28, 2012)