The Redemptive Power of Art

I know, it’s been a while since my last post. I blame circumstance; what with work and Christmas and family bereavements I’ve barely had a moment to finish a book, and no sooner do I start again but I’m thrust headlong into a series which will all be covered in a single post. However! I did go and see a play back in November that I think is worthy of a post. I know it’s not strictly a book, but the things that interest me about books are present in plays, films and decent TV so I’ll plough on ahead.

The play was Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker performed by Out of Joint at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was my first visit to the playhouse, which is shocking after a decade in Leeds, and I was surprised with the small and intimate feel of the particular theatre we were in. Lots of AS level students were there with their pads of A4, making me feel very jealous of the days when I just studied books. Alas!

The play is set in New South Wales in a convict colony. Royal Marines are stationed there and the camp is still a prison, although they are also building a town and there is a prospect of freedom at some point. Prostitution and escapes are rife and it becomes apparent that it’s not yet a new start for anyone. The captain suggests that the convicts put on a play and Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark is put in charge of the production. After a shaky start it starts to look promising, but then the whole thing is thrown into jeopardy by an escape in which some of the actors are implicated.

The main theme of the play is the power of art. The play was written in 1988 and the debate still rages on today, particularly with government cuts. Many people (my boyfriend included) believe that art is a luxury and not something that should ever be funded by the government. Other people think that art is a vital part of life and if there’s no paid work going they should get funding to be creative and produce their work. I personally think the finances are a difficult area, but art is one of the more important things about being human. It separates us from animals, making life something you enjoy rather than an exercise in survival. Even those that aren’t creative enjoy the fruits of others’ labours. In the play, the Captain argues that art can be redemptive and the Marines are soon split between those that agree and those who are angered by what they see as a waste of time. Major Ross, for example, sees the prisoners as animals who are innately lacking inhumanity; as such there is no point in trying to rehabilitate them. There is one particularly uncomfortable scene where he insists on watching rehearsal and interrupting to humiliate the actors. It becomes increasingly unbearable, and just when it feels too tense to continue, the actors out of the line of fire start saying their lines, loudly and desperately. It takes the focus off the cruelty and gives them a way to fight back. It reminds them that they are human at the moment when Ross is most trying to degrade them. Art defeats him even as he is trying to prove it is useless.
Throughout the play, the humanity of the prisoners is emphasised, especially the female prisoners. Mary Brennan, the lead actress is haunted by an act of prostitution committed on the boat to Australia, where the choice was between virtue or starvation. Her friend Dabby is scornful, saying that at least she wasn’t raped, like so many other women, but Mary insists she would rather that. It is the choice she made rather than the act that haunts her. Then there is Duckling, in a restrictive relationship with Harry, a Marine of sorts. She behaves as though she is only with him for the comfort it provides her, yet on his death bed she realises the true depth of her feelings for him. She desperately tries to make deals with him to keep him alive, all to no avail. After his death, she is treated as a whore rather than a widow. Finally, Liz Morden, the toughest and most unrepentant prisoner, tells heartbreakingly of how she came to be transported, when her father was caught pickpocketing and blamed her instead. We learn that none of these prisoners is innately evil. More often than not, the battle for survival has forced them into this situation, a situation that people like Ross would prefer they never climbed out of.

The play ends with the cast backstage, buoyed and nervous. There is a strong feeling of change, as though anything is possible. One of the actors, Wisehammer, reads a prologue he has written, saying ‘we left our country for our country’s good.’ To me, this signifies that England survives through scapegoating, criminalising the needy and desperate and expelling them. There is a sense of resignation within the anger though, and generally there is an acceptance of the situation among the convicts, with the exception of Dabby who is planning to escape back to England. Bridges are rebuilt and Mary Brennan and Ralph have started a relationship and are making plans for the future. Producing the play has engendered hope. Art has made a difference.

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