"Our Country's Good," a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is about a group of English convicts bound for Australia by sea in 1788. In the first scene, Sideways, a convict on board the ship, is being brutally whipped and we are introduced to the constant, overwhelming fear, hunger and despair that the convicts are going through.
We are also introduced to all the officials on board. They are debating the punishment of hanging that three of the convicts have received for stealing, and we see the different attitudes different characters have to this. Governor Arthur Phillip supports a humane approach to dealing with the convicts, but Judge David Collins believes that the law must be upheld and that a crime, however petty, is still a crime. Captain Watkin Tench says that the convicts are beyond redemption anyway, and Midshipman Harry Brewer takes the opinion that the convicts have become desensitized to hangings and even consider it "their theatre". In the end Governor Phillip believes that a play for the convicts to put on, with "fine language [and] sentiment" is the way to go in order to encourage the convicts to change their ways in this new environment.
We learn the play chosen play is to be "The Recruiting Officer" (1706) by Irish actor-turned-playwright George Farquhar (1677-1707). It is about his experiences working as a recruiting officer for the army for three years, and one his last works before he died a year after it was performed. Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark begins holding auditions for the play. Ralph Clark is interested in timid convict Mary Brenham for the play, as she knows how to write and therefore can make copies of the script. Ralph Clark has the role of "Sylvia" in mind for Mary. Clark gives the boisterous Dabby the role of "Rose", although a little skeptical because she is unable to read. Rough and tough Liz Morden then comes in, snatches the play from Ralph Clark and tells him she'll "let [him] know" about her decision of her character.
The officers are already passionately quarreling about the play that night, which is induced by their consumption of alcohol. They are debating as to whether the convicts should be allowed to put on a play. Some officers are against it, for example Major Robbie Ross, who is a character constantly at odds with everyone around him. "You want vice-ridden vermin to enjoy themselves?" he asks. He argues that the play will teach "disobedience [and] revolution". However, as Phillip is in charge, the plan goes through in the end, under his word that the convicts should be educated and reformed. Ralph Clark echoed Phillip's sentiment, saying that already some convicts have lost "some of their corruption".
Quiet and unconventional convict Duckling now joins "The Recruiting Officer" as well, under the firm suggestion of Midshipman Harry Brewer, who is obsessed with her. Ketch Freeman, the hangman on board, enters while Dabby, Mary and Liz (as the character "Melinda" in "The Recruiting Officer") attempt to rehearse. They promptly send him away, which leads him to talk to Ralph Clark. He opens up, desperately asking for forgiveness for his actions that his job brings about. He feels that if he is to redeem himself amongst the convicts, he should act in the play with them.
The first rehearsal does not run smoothly due to conflicts between the convicts. Also, some convicts do not turn up. The convicts' attempts at acting in this scene, although whole-hearted, are amusing however. But this comedy is soon broken by the antithesis of Captain Jemmy Campbell and Major Robbie Ross entering in a fury, proclaiming that the two convicts who did not show up to rehearsal have escaped, stealing food from the ship's stores along with them. They point to three convicts, including Liz Morden, as possible accomplices and the rehearsal is left ruined.
This marks a struggle for...