By Timberlake Wertenbaker
Our Country’s Good was commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark for the Royal Court in 1988. The play was written by Timberlake Wertenbaker following two months of workshops where historical research into characters and intense improvisations provided much of the stimulus material. The play has become a classic and is one of the most performed plays ever commissioned by Stafford-Clark. It is a set text at A level and a popular choice for theatre studies students looking to perform adaptations of existing plays.
In essence the play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker which chronicles the first ever theatrical production to take place in Australia. This was a performance of Farqhuar’s The Recruiting Officer which took place in 1789 with some of the convicts as the actors. This fascinating historical event, chronicled in various forms including the personal diaries of Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark who directed the play, is used to examine the humanising power of theatre.
A year earlier, on the 18th of January, 1788 the first fleet of British prison ships, under the command of Arthur Phillip, had arrived at Botany Bay in what is now New South Wales and settled up the coast at Port Jackson, the site of current-day Sydney. Many of the prisoners had been convicted of minor theft and many of their guards were military men who fought and lost the war against the American colonies. There is a sense that they were all condemned to exile in a land where farming was difficult, the heat unbearable, food in desperately short supply and the tensions between prisoner and gaoler stretched to breaking point.
At a time of extremely low supplies and low hopes, with the future of the colony in question, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark suggests staging a production of George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer using convicts, many of them illiterate, as his cast. His intention is not only to raise morale but also make a favourable impression upon his superiors and secure a promotion. The project immediately takes on political dimensions and meets with opposition among the other officers. As his opening night nears Clark struggles to ready the play amidst a storm of questions about the possibility of redemption and the transforming powers of theatre.
Our Country’s Good opened on 6th September 1988 at The Royal Court and quickly received a universally positive response. It is a perfect blend of historical narrative, three dimensional characters and strong theatrical structure.
Lael Louisiana Timberlake Wertenbaker was born in New York to parents Charles and Lael. Raised in the Northern Basque Country, France she went to Greece in 1980 to teach. While there she began writing and on her return to Britain quickly found critical success for her plays. She wrote for Shared Experience before her play Abel’s Court led to her becoming writer in residence at The Royal Court from 1984 to 1985.
Her initial success continued with The Grace of Mary Traverse (1985), winning the Plays and Players Most Promising Playwright Award. Our Country’s Good, based on the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally was first performed at the Royal Court in 1988 and was directed by her long time collaborator Max Stafford-Clark.
Wertenbaker went from strength to strength, winning the Eileen Anderson Central Television Drama Award for The Love of the Nightingale (1989). Three Birds Alighting on a Field (1992), a satirical portrait of the art world, was first performed at the Royal Court and won the London Critics’ Circle Best West End Play Award, the Writer’s Guild Award (Best West End Play) and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The Break of Day (1995) was first performed by Out of Joint, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, and toured as a companion piece to Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. After Darwin was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 1998.
As well as her highly original playwriting, Wertenbaker has also adapted and translated work by Marivaux, Anouilh, Maeterlinck, Pirandello, Sophocles and Euripides. She wrote the screenplays for film adaptations of Edith Wharton’s The Children and Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. She is the author of a television play, Do Not Disturb, and her work for radio includes Dianeira, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in November 1999, an adaptation and translation of Euripides’ play Hecuba broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 2001, and an adaptation of a Kadare novel The H File and Scenes of Seduction on Radio 4 in March 2005.
In 2004 Galileo’s Daughter was performed in Bath at the Theatre Royal by the Peter Hall Company. “What I love about her is that she does not indulge sentiment, though she is very emotional,” says Peter Hall. “She does not display wit in fireworks, though she is very witty. I find her a political dramatist in the best sense because her plays are about how men govern themselves. Other people say she is cool and cold even, but I don’t find that. It is a very hot talent underneath those precise words.”
As for the role of female playwright, Wertenbaker herself describes it thus: “It is very hard for a woman to be a playwright because it is so public. It’s a tough world in the theatre.”
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