I just found this piece in an old email and wanted to share it with you. It’s about doing a play called Country Music in a high-security prison. The experience changed utterly the way I think about theatre…
There is a massive chocolate cake but the classroom smells of egg sandwiches and strong orange squash. The actors – Joe Marsh, Philip Correia and myself - are getting into costume. A pumped-up prison PE Instructor has just announced that two of my fingers are broken (they got trapped in the touring van’s door this morning). I’m trying to balance a bag of ice on my left hand and pull on a pair of black leggings with my right: it’s not working.
Next door, a group of thirty Young Offenders and adult male prisoners sit, waiting, on plastic chairs. It’s 30 degrees in the shade and my ice bag is turning into a fairground trophy minus its goldfish. Everyone is wired. None of us has a clue what to expect.
Because the Mail loves anything they can twist into a ‘Prison Is Fun’ story, the Ministry of Justice has the jitters and I am not allowed to name this place, or any of the others we visited. What I can do, though, is say it as I saw it. After listening to prisoners respond to Country Music, I am with Simon Stephens, who wrote it after working with offenders at HMP Wandsworth and Grendon. He believes that art humanises and that humanising criminals is a good thing because it means they are less likely to re-offend. Columnist Erwin James, who served 20 years for a double murder, puts it best: “Creative activity took me to a place from which I would never want to return.”
There will be no prison officers watching today. Just three middle-aged women from the education department and a cartoonish big green panic button next to the light-switch by the door. A woman in a flowery top explains that if there’s any sort of trouble, the button will be pressed and the room will fill with guards within 12 seconds. If that happens, she says, we must stand back and let them do their job.
She finishes checking off our props from an A4 list that includes a car seat, five wooden cigarettes and a giant multi-pack of crisps secretly reinforced with a pillowcase. I need to protect my hand for the performance, so Phil tries to chew through a bandage with his teeth. Ridiculously, I ask around for a pair of scissors. The education officer laughs: “You learn to do without life’s little luxuries in here.” I use grey masking tape instead.
With my side ponytail tightened by one of the directors and a last ‘frouf’ of Joe’s 1983 Brylcremed quiff, we head next door. “Were you scared?” one of the inmates asks later. “There’s no need, we’ve been picked to watch because we’re the good boys.”
The experience of acting in a small classroom in front of a group of criminals is pretty intense. The four or five Category C adults in the audience are inside for relatively minor offences. But the majority are Category A 18-21 year-olds, serving life sentences (the punishment for murder, rape, aggravated burglary, wounding with intent or criminal damage with intent to endanger life).
I look at the lad closest to me, a British Asian kid in a cream kufi cap, and wonder what he did. My foot, in its white ankle sock and laced-up boot, could easily touch one of his trainers. I think about all the victims of all the savage crimes in this room, and what their families might make of actors being paid to perform for their attackers.
The opening scene of Country Music is set in a stolen car. Jamie (Joe) has just glassed a man he discovered having sex with his mentally ill mum. His 15-year-old girlfriend Lynsey (me) is worried about what’s going to happen. The scene is crammed with ‘c***’s and ‘f***’s and silliness. The prisoners absolutely love it.
By the time the action jumps forward ten years - to a prison visiting room reunion between Jamie and his little brother Matty (Phil) - they are lost in the story. The only interruption comes from the comic timing of a noisy pair of Mallard ducks outside the window, which none of the inmates seem to hear. Matty breaks terrible news to Jamie about his little daughter: “Jamie, Lynsey’s moved up north.” Quack. “She’s met a bloke. She’s moved up Sunderland.” Quack. “She’s taken Emma with her.” Beat. Quack.
The bit I’ve been dreading comes next. For Scene 3, I switch characters to play Jamie’s daughter Emma, whom he’s arranged to meet for the first time in 14 years. I steady my nerves to say the line that caused inmates at Wandsworth - where the play was performed in 2004 - to shout out “F***ing bitch”.
“You’re not my dad. Not any more.” There is a short, sharp, shocked intake of breath, from everyone. For a second it’s like all the air in the room has been sucked out. Then a great wave of energy hits me; I don’t know if it’s my emotion, or theirs, or both; I just don’t want to carry on. But I do. “I’ve got a dad. It’s not you.” Stillness.
During the hour-long performance there’s just one human heckle. When Jamie kisses the scar on Lynsey’s knee in the final scene - which takes us to the hours before he has committed his crime - a kid on the back row leers, “Is that the only place you’re going to kiss her?” But he doesn’t get a laugh, since at that moment Joe leans clumsily over to kiss me on the mouth and the audience stops breathing. Total silence. It is a charged, strangely tender moment.
When you are acting on any stage, you can hear an audience listening. There is something in the quality of their silence that immediately tells you if they are with you or if they have slipped away to shopping lists and family illness and mortgage arithmetic. We didn’t lose the thirty men and boys in that hot classroom with bars on its windows for a second. They were in it with us.
Afterwards they talk for an hour about what they thought of the play. The first person to speak up is a black Leeds boy in glasses sitting in the middle of the front row. He asks about the metaphor of the sweets that Jamie hands out through the play: “Is it because he is immature and hasn’t grown up?” An older man joins in: being in the same room as you with no curtain, he says, made me feel like I was a part of the action. “And because you had such shit props, I had to pretend more, which was great.”
As the session draws to a close, a man in his early 40s with dark eyes asks in a small voice, “What do you think Jamie could’ve said to Emma so she didn’t reject him?” Everyone has an opinion. “She’s just telling it how it is. He’s not her real dad. He didn’t bring her up.” “She has to tell him straight, otherwise they can’t move on.” “She’s punishing him because he hurt her.” The man nods and looks at his feet.
We sit among them and chat while the props are cleared away. Joe and Phil are told by one boy that, beforehand, he was annoyed because he thought it was going to be shit. The older bloke next to him told him to sit still, shut up and watch. “And then it was the best thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “You’re really good. You should be on the telly.”
I talk to a young blond prisoner with Made In Sheffield tattooed down his arm. He looks like he should be in the Cubs. I tell him I thought the last thing prisoners would want to do is to watch a play about a prisoner. I thought they’d feel patronised, preached at, bored, even. “No way, that was the best bit,” he says. “How old are the directors?”(The two young women are very attractive, despite their attempts today with matching Clark Kent glasses.)
Before we leave, the prisoners start filling in their feedback forms. A man with white hair asks how to spell ‘professional’ and writes it, slowly, in an infant’s scrawl. He hands me the form and points at a faded blue tattoo his inner arm. “Look at this here,” he laughs. “I must’ve known!” It’s the name Lynsey.
The quiet man who asked how Jamie should’ve dealt with his daughter comes over to shake my hand. “I said that because that’s me,” he says, very softly. “I’ve got a daughter. She was two when I went inside, and me and her mum split up and now she’s ten and I don’t think she wants to know me.”
The most obvious flaw in the argument that prisons should be hell, is that hell breeds devils and demons. It’s not in the public interest to insist on punishment without rehabilitation when thousands of new victims are being created every year. The statistics speak for themselves: 80% of young people who leave prison re-offend within two years.
Most of the 120 or so men and women who saw Country Music last week at jails and secure mental health units around Yorkshire had never seen a play before. It made some of them laugh. It made some of them worry. It made some of them speak. It made some of them weep. It made some of them hold their breath. It made some of them think. And it made me realise, all over again, that theatre - and its ability to bring us face to face with our own humanity - is amazing.