It is 1787, and a fleet of British convict ships is bound for Australia, where Captain Arthur Phillip will become Governor of one of the region’s first penal colonies. Not long after the military officers and their prisoners arrive, Phillip discusses the merits of punishment with Judge Collins, Captain Tench, and Midshipman Harry Brewer. Phillip is averse to cruel displays of discipline, but Tench believes in the value of capital punishment. As this discussion continues, the men turn their attention to the hanging of several convicts, which is set to take place soon. Phillip expresses his reservations regarding the spectacle, but Judge Collins suggests that public hangings instill a “mortar of fear” in the convicts that is necessary for a well-functioning “civilisation.” Agreeing with this, Tench explains that the hangings are the convicts’ “favourite form of entertainment.” This appalls Phillip, who suggests that the convicts should be exposed to other forms of entertainment, and when Tench makes fun of him for this, Phillip upholds that “no one is born naturally cultured,” saying that even he had to learn to appreciate things like theater. All the same, he instructs Harry to move forward with the hanging.
In his tent one night, Lieutenant Ralph Clark writes in his diary, addressing Alicia, his wife who stayed behind in England. Eventually, Harry visits and starts to talk about his loneliness. It has been a month since the convict ship first landed, which is when Harry hanged the convicts Phillip was discussing in the opening scene. One of those convicts was Handy Baker, who was the second lover of Duckling, a female convict with whom Harry is also involved. “Ralph, I saw Handy Baker last night,” Harry admits, insisting that “he’s come back.” He explains that Duckling has stopped talking to him, suggesting that it’s because he was involved in Handy’s execution. “I didn’t want to hang him,” he says. He also says that Duckling claims “she never feels anything” with him, worrying aloud that perhaps she did “feel something” when she was with Handy. Harry then explains that he saved Duckling’s life by getting her transported to Australia instead of executed, though she isn’t grateful to him for this favor.
Ralph then complains that Governor Phillip doesn’t make time for him. He brainstorms how he might catch the Governor’s attention, and Harry informs him that Phillip wants someone to produce a play with the convicts. This surprises Ralph, who finds it ridiculous to think the prisoners might actually act in a play, but Harry insists that some of them are “good women,” though he immediately complains about Duckling again. Ralph says he has a theater background and asks Harry to mention this to Phillip.
At the behest of Phillip, Ralph holds auditions for The Recruiting Officer, which is the comedy they have decided to stage. Among the first people Ralph casts are Mary Brenham in the lead role and her friend Dabby Bryant in a small supporting role. Ralph is quite taken by Mary, whose reading skills and articulate nature impress him. He also casts Liz Morden, an unpopular convict who’s often violent and rude. Not long after this initial casting session, Phillip discusses “the merits of the theatre” with a number of his associates, all of whom have differing opinions regarding whether or not the play is a good idea. On one side, Major Ross and Captain Tench remain critical, thinking that criminals are incapable of change and thus should simply be forced to serve their time. Phillip and Ralph, on the other hand, believe the play will have transformative effects. Reverend Johnson and Judge Collins waver between both sides. Ralph insists that the auditions he’s had have already made an impact on the convicts. “They seemed to acquire a dignity,” he says, “[…] they seemed to lose some of their corruption.” He also points out that the play will not only give the convicts a distraction, but will allow the guards to come together and pretend they’re back in England.
As preparations continue, Harry tries to convince Duckling to start talking to him again, pleading with her to acknowledge him. They live in the same tent, but she’s clearly resentful of him. When she suggests that Harry should let her fraternize with the rest of the convicts, he becomes suspicious. The two fight, and finally Duckling says, “I wish I was dead. At least when you’re dead, you’re free.” Taken aback, Harry suggests that Duckling should act in Ralph’s play, though he warns her against sleeping with Ralph.
During this period, Dabby and Mary rehearse their lines. When Liz tries to join them, Dabby insults her. Nonetheless, Mary helps them both practice, since she’s the only one who can read. Before long, Dabby and Liz end up fighting, at which point Ketch Freeman—the colony’s hangman—appears and asks why they’re “at each other’s throats.” “I wouldn’t talk of throats if I was you, Mr Hangman Ketch Freeman,” Liz says, and the three women berate him. That night, Freeman visits Ralph’s tent and tells him his life story, explaining that he always gets in trouble simply for being part of a group that collectively breaks the law. In fact, he was with Handy Baker when he and several others stole food, but Ketch avoided execution by agreeing to become the colony’s hangman. However, he can’t stand that everyone hates him, so he pleads with Ralph to be included in the play, hoping this will help him redeem himself.
At the first official rehearsal, Ralph gathers the actors, a group that includes Mary, Liz, Dabby, Ketch, Duckling, a sophisticated literary man named John Wisehammer, and a posh man named Robert Sideway. For the majority of the rehearsal, the convicts quarrel, as nobody wants to work with Liz and everybody resents Ketch. As Sideway presents himself in an absurdly dramatic manner to the imaginary audience, a convict known as Black Caesar rushes in and insists upon joining the play, saying he’ll play a servant even though the part doesn’t exist. This annoys Ralph, but he agrees.
As the rehearsal continues, Major Ross and Captain Campbell appear and inform Ralph that John Arscott and Henry Kable—two men he originally cast and who failed to turn up at rehearsal—have escaped with “three others” into the woods. He then blames the play for this turn of events. Seeing Caesar among the actors, Ross tells Ralph that the convict was with the group of escapees before turning back. Ross also sees Wisehammer and accuses him simply because he’s Jewish. Lastly, he says that Liz was last seen with Kable near the colony’s food rations. “Liz Morden, you will be tried for stealing from the stores,” he says. “You know the punishment? Death by hanging.”
In jail, Liz, Caesar, and Wisehammer talk with Arscott, who has been recaptured. Eventually, Mary, Sideway, and Duckling enter and resume rehearsal with their fellow actors, assuring them that they can still imagine they’re in the play even if they’re bound in chains. Around this time, Ralph visits Phillip and tells him he wants to stop the play, since the other officers are against it. However, Phillip encourages him to persevere, pointing out that it’s natural to make “enemies” when breaking “conventions.” He then references the Socratic dialogue Meno, in which Socrates teaches an uneducated slave geometry. “When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician,” he says, suggesting that Ralph should do the same with his actors. He also says that he wanted Ralph to cast Liz so that they can make an “example” of her by spotlighting her “redemption.” Ralph agrees to forge onward with the play.
One night, Harry sits in his tent drinking rum and hearing the voices of people like Handy and Thomas Barrett, both of whom he helped execute. As he works himself into a tormented rage, Duckling runs to him and he accuses her of cheating on him with Handy on the beach, though she has just offered to let him have sex with her to calm his nerves. Not long after this scene, Harry falls ill and dies, and Duckling mourns his death, having finally confessed her love for him.
One night, Ralph finds Mary rehearsing alone on the beach. When he joins her and recites the lines of her character’s lover, they begin to feel a connection, and their fake embrace turns into something real. As they take off their clothes, Ralph admits he’s never seen a naked woman before—not even his wife.
Liz and the others are let out of jail and allowed to rehearse. However, Liz has been sentenced to death, having refused to plead her innocence during her trial. To rectify this, Phillip meets with her, Judge Collins, Ralph, and Ross. Eventually, Liz admits she didn’t defend herself because she didn’t think anyone would listen to her—an idea that deeply troubles Phillip and Collins, who want to create a just judicial system. Finally, Liz insists that she steal food, and Collins grants her a retrial.
On the night of the play, Dabby tells her fellow actors that she plans to slip away during the bows, but Mary pleads with her not do this, saying Ralph will be “blamed.” The rest of the players agree, and Mary points out that they’ll never be allowed to act again if Dabby runs away. As such, Dabby tacitly agrees not to go through with her plan. Shortly after this conversation, Ralph enters and prepares the cast to go out on stage. Wisehammer reads a prologue he wrote, and though Ralph admits it’s good, he insists that it’s too “political.” Sideway assures Wisehammer that he can read it in the “Sideway Theatre,” which he intends to establish when he’s eventually set free. With this, Arscott steps out onto stage and delivers the play’s opening monologue, which draws thunderous applause from the audience.