Jon Bradfield on learning about the worlds behind our plays.
I think a defining aspect of Out of Joint’s shows is that, over the course of a couple of hours, they offer an overview of a world about which you might know little. (Last year’s play Bang Bang Bang, for example, gave clear and personal look at the lives and work of human rights defenders.) And, as a result, one of the most rewarding aspects of working with Out of Joint is that you become a student, even a “mini expert” in a field you’ve not encountered before.
I’ve just been typing up some notes for a programme article about the real life officers and convicts on whom the characters in Our County’s Good are based. The story of Mary (Dabby) Bryant strikes me as extraordinary. She was an unemployed 23-year-old who was tried in Exeter in 1786 for assault and highway robbery to the value of 12 shillings, 11 pence. Sentenced to hang, she was later reprieved and sentenced to transportation for seven years. With her husband and two children she escaped from Sydney in a stolen rowing boat and, after an epic journey of over 2000 miles, reached Jakarta where the Dutch Governor believed her story of shipwreck. He put her in a ship to Cape Town – where she had the bad luck to meet the Marines who were returning from service in New South Wales! She was rearrested, but back in London the writer James Boswell led a petition to Lord Sydney for a reprieve. She was pardoned, and returned to Cornwall where she lived to be an old woman. Boswell sent her a “pension” of 15 shillings a year.
What must it have been like, for the officers but especially the convicts, to have been transported on the First Fleet? To be sent to the other side of the world would surely have been as incomprehensible to them as it would be for us to be sent to a colony on Mars.
There’s a line in the play that stands out for me. It comes in a scene where the officers are debating the merits or otherwise of putting on a play with a cast of convicts, and the humanising influence it may have on them. Captain Tench, who is opposed to the project, says:
“We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature.”
I think this is the central idea, the hypothesis that the play goes on to challenge – I’ve used it on the leaflets we’re using to promote the show. It reflects a popular idea at the time (but still prevalent perhaps) that there is a “criminal class”.
Are these people, dragged from the slums of London and elsewhere, a different class, type, almost species of person from the upright officers? From you and me? Of course not. (In fact, another article I’ve commissioned will look at how theatre is used to great effect with prisoners and offenders today.) Our Country’s Good brings to mind one of those TV programmes where someone takes a group of delinquents and transforms them into a choir, giving them purpose and pride in the process. I mean that as a compliment. The complications and reversals of Our Country’s Good come about because, thanks to putting on a play together, the officers and convicts come to see the humanity in themselves and each other. Timberlake marks this change brilliantly: early in the play, she has the officers discussing a hanging in very casual, practical terms. But later, when Liz Morden is sentenced to be hanged, it is becomes a personal, humanitarian issue.
When we began to think of the poster image we might create for our publicity material, as well as rereading the play we looked at a lot of previous examples from the many productions there have been, professional, amateur and student. The majority feature either a noose, or chains or handcuffs, or perhaps a map of Australia made out of these objects. The logic is impeccable, but the images seemed to reflect the facts of the piece and not its heart. That’s why we wanted people on it – an officer and a convict, and the suggestion of their discovering a connection, a fellow humanity.
And yes, we wanted something a bit sexy. And that’s ok too. It’s a sexy, earthy play.
Jon is Marketing Manager at Out of Joint