Theatre director Ross Desprez is bringing the first play he ever directed for the Vancouver Island University theatre department back to the Malaspina Theatre stage.
“I think about every 25 years you can redo a play,” he said during a break in rehearsals at the theatre on Oct. 17.
The play, Our Country’s Good by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, is based on actual events and tells the story of British officers and convicts at a late 18th century Australian penal colony who stage a production of The Recruiting Officer by Irish writer George Farquhar.
“The guy who’s in charge, Governor Philips, decides, ‘I don’t want to run a convict colony, I want to start a civilization.’ So he convinces one of the young lieutenants to put on a play with all the prisoners to give them a sense of self and worth,” Desprez said.
“So the play is all about this young officer trying to put on a play with all these convicts, and of course by them going through the act of creating art and having to work together the convicts themselves become united and they’re empowered by the process of creating art. So at the end of the play they actually become empowered human beings rather than condemned slaves.”
As Our Country’s Good features a play-within-a-play, much of its humour is derived from irony and self-reference, with characters commenting on theatre and actors and worrying about confusing their audience. The play also includes double casting, meaning that a the same actor may play an officer in one scene, and a convict in the next.
“I could pull up probably 100 quotes from the play that are just chestnuts about the value of theatre or art and how it affects civilization,” Desprez said.
“I really can’t say enough about this play. I really love this play.”
As the play progresses, the plot begins to share similarities with that of The Recruiting Officer. Desprez said he wonders if the real-life officers and convicts realized the irony themselves.
“She’s very carefully pulled out pieces of the Farquhar play that directly relate to what they’re talking about right now, which is really clever and really insightful,” he said of the playwright.
One of the play’s dominant themes is status, which is demonstrated through the characters’ accents. Desprez said they play challenges his students to develop strong “stage voices” so the audience can hear and appreciate every word.
“Every scene the playwright is using words specifically to say something about how we find our place in society and I guess that’s so big in British society, it’s all about the accent and about status,” he said.
“I think that’s one thing that happens in Australia and happens during the play is by the end of it they realize, ‘No, we can’t afford to have status here.’”
WHAT’S ON…Vancouver Island theatre department’s production of Our Country’s Good at Malaspina Theatre on Nov. 2 to 4 and 8 to 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Box office opens one hour before showtime. For reservations email firstname.lastname@example.org.