The most remarkable thing about the play is not just that it was purely created from a workshop of actors, using research and their talents to form a brilliant play. It is how this doesn't matter; if you did not know it's origins, you would assume this was just a standard play. Because of it's origins, it gains a unique style. While multi-roling is not uncommon in theatre, the play is about theatre and uses multi-roling in a very specific way. If you look at the original cast list, it is worth noting which actor played each role. For example, concited Wisehammer and Governor Arthur Phillip, both played by Ron Cook, are arguably the most thoughtful characters in the play even though one is a convict and the other in charge of the colony. Lesley Sharp as , Reverend Johnson, and convicts Meg Long and Mary Brenham is able to explore three different views of sex and, in the case of Mary, how love can change someone. With this technique, the similarites and contrasts provoke interesting viewing
When reading the play though, it is not necessary to imagine multi-roling actors; having them as indivdual characters does not lessen the message that theatre can be a form of redemption. Neither does it remove the shock of the opening scene of convicts being flogged and missing home. It is clear from the start then, who we are meant to feel sympathetic for. The play continues in this blatant way, with simplistic plot and characterisation - set in the 1780s, a group of convicts sent to Australia try to stage a play, despite some reluctance from officers and themselves. The class differences between the officers and the convicts is so clear, that it easily allows the reader to see the different attitudes towards the treatment of criminals; re-education or punishment? This is not as clear cut an argument as you might suppose, even if Wertenbaker is clearly in favour of the former. Neither argument is completely disproved, but the bias is obvious and so we are inclined to agree with the author, and rightly so.
|The Methuen Drama: Student Edition |
about the origins of the play
Phillip: Why wouldn't you say any of this before?This is a crucial moment on many levels, most notably because we realise that what Liz says is true. When we see the convicts at their best i.e. as decent human beings, it is when they are interacting with each other and rehearsing 'The Recruiting Officer' The fact that they are willing to perform in the play shows that they clearly have some confidence. Yet as Berkoff said "Naturalism is what you do when you don't know anything else" So perhaps it is not surprising that they soon improve their acting ability as they continue to rehearse. They also act as great moments to see character arcs and developments. As they spend more time on the play their true self comes out, as they realise how pretending to be someone else shows you who you really are - Liz is less judgemental, Wisehammer becomes more impressed by the power of words and Mary is more willing to embrace her love for Ralph.
Liz: Because it wouldn't have mattered.
Phillip: Speaking the truth?
Ralph, a lowly officer, is the protagonist of the play and so is by far the most believable and complex character. His first scene is dully observing the flogging of a convict but by the end of the play is passionately encouraging his new-found actors to give it their all on opening night. This intially sounds like a positive change in character, and yet in the period this would be seen as a lowly official sinking even lower in social status, hence the comment from the bigoted Major Ross of the second lieutenant: "He wants to be promoted to convict." This is a peculiar juxtaposition, but considering the prejudiced attitude of the officers and the more liberal convicts, this statement is not as fatuous as it first appears.
"And we, this colony of a few hundred will be watching this together, for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers" (p. 20)We, the audience, meet the demands expected from the officers when they become the audience for the convicts' play - we forget that they are criminals and become interested in their character and personality. Their actions and reasons for being at the colony is not important to us (only in terms of the plot) it is what they do with the time given to them. As we witness the prejudicial and arrogant attitudes of the officers, and the brutality this brings, we support their attempts at rebellion and suffer with them as they are duly punished, especially at the dramatic ending to Act 2 Scene 5. It is not unlikely that Wertenbaker herself shared this emotion when she went to see a play run by prisoners within their environment, an experience that has a clear impact upon the themes and general plot of the play, which are also referenced from the various letters she received from some of the performing prisoners.
A simple play which is very easy to read and well worth trying to see a performance of. I saw a college production of it and was very impressed by the complex issues discussed within this straightforward story. As a drama student, I perhaps appreciated the message about the benefits of theatre more than most. Nevertheless the historical context and the fact that it is based on a true event and real people is more than enough to keep the reader engaged.