IN 1788, after many months at sea the first ship crammed with English convicts arrived in Botany Bay, Australia.
Those who survived the perilous journey arrived to find an alien land and a discipline meted out by the officers who kept them to be as harsh as the beating summer sun.
How their lives unfold is imagined in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good, a new production of which is now on at the National Theatre.
It explores the themes of crime and punishment and how best to treat prisoners and those perceived as being at the bottom of society under control – by kindness or fear.
The officers, just as much prisoners in this vast country as their charges, advocate public hangings and beatings as the best way to keep the criminals in line.
But one officer, the ambitious second lieutenant Ralph Clark proposes to put on a play – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – as a way of showing the power of drama to improve the convict’s minds, behaviour and ultimately their lives.
To begin with he is ridiculed by fellow officers and has trouble convincing them of the redemptive power of art and culture. He also finds it difficult to control the rag tag group of convicts who audition and then come along to rehearsals.
But over time they gel as a group and a transformation takes place, not just amongst the convicts but for Ralph too.
Throughout though, the increasingly depleting food supplies and the threat of hanging, flogging or beating is ever present – even for the smallest of crimes – as are the frequent clashes between Ralph and his senior officers over whether the play will provide the civilising effect on the prisoners he promises.
Among the stand out performances are Jodie McNee as thief Liz Morden, Lee Ross as the wannabe Garrick actor Sideway, Caoilfhionn Dunne as Mary Brenham with whom Ralph eventually finds himself falling in love and Jason Hughes as the idealistic Ralph.
Superbly directed by Nadia Fall and featuring a stellar cast this production is a deeply moving and poignant piece, made more so by some wonderful music by former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews.
Our Country’s Good is on at the National Theatre, South Bank, until October 17. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.