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“Our Country’s Good” by By Timberlake Wertenbaker. St.James Theatre, London

ourcountrysgoodThis is the greatest play about the theatre ever written, is a complete tour de force and total proof of the redemptive power of art to inspire the soul and change people for the better.

Set in the penal colonies in the wake of the loss of America, Our Country’s Good is a reflection on how British see themselves, and most importantly it is a study on the basic principles of how and why people turn to crime, and how Society should deal with those who break the law. The play was written in 1988, but the themes are everlasting.

The fascinating thing is that the cast play two characters; one convict and one officer. This is a stroke of genius from the writer as it forces the actors to engage in the themes from both sides of the fence.

I had the privilege to be directed by Andy Hodgson as a minor part of the Chameleon Players production of Our Country’s Good in June 2000. I played Ketch Freeman, the reviled Irish hangman of the colony who attracted opprobrium from the convicts as a lackey of the system (he volunteered to hang others as an alternative to being hung himself), and by the officers for being a criminal. His genuine vulnerability and self loathing moved me and begun my interest in working as a volunteer in the prison system. The scene “The Science of Hanging” where he measures up a female convict is one of the top things I have ever done in my life. Pretentious and self indulgent? Probably yes. My Officer character was the strangely off kilter Captain Campbell, who as Major Ross’ bagman got to witness the acidic rantings of the Scotsman who is vehemently opposed to the Governor’s plan to encourage the human side of the convicts by commissioning Lt. Ralph Clark to direct “The Recruiting Officer” by George Farquhar, in itself a key choice of material.

The debate about human dignity and the nature of crime and punishment is the basis of this play, and is something we must continue to discuss and act on. Tony Blair was absolutely right in his assertion that we must be “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime” but due to New Labour’s obsession with the Daily Mail agenda, the first part of the statement was implemented with gusto, but without the proportionate response to the second bit. The Tories, of course care not a jot for the reason why people turn to crime and just concentrate on lusty condemnation and the politics of contempt.

It was a strange experience watching something that has played such an important role in my political and life journey, but I was most chuffed when Conor said it was the best thing he had ever seen, and was asking when we are going to the theatre again.

Nothing I can write here can do justice to what a great and important play this really is.

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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