Edinburgh Fringe 2009
At two hours, this documentary of life in an infamous prison in Northern Ireland has the potential to be too long, but is epic in its scope. The six-strong cast handle several parts each, and the flow of characters cropping up again at different points in their lives keeps the story engaging and lends it a similar popular appeal to a prison-based soap opera.
For a long time we’ve known about the idea of having prisoners sing. Inmates performing ‘Thriller’ in a Chinese jail have been YouTube stars for months. Like front-line military troops, prison inmates they need to be kept busy or occupied, and in the prisoners’ case, it can also serve as a form of rehabilitation. In fact, such performances are probably the best ways to see theatre as a redemptive force that creates actual change in people’s lives. So it should come as no surprise that the inmates of Northern Ireland’s notorious Long Kesh prison should have resorted to concerts and singing during their incarceration. That they have resorted to the music of Smokey Robinson is more of a surprise.
The use of seventies and early eighties pop music does a little to undermine the machismo of these Republican hardman, in spite of their skinheads, swearing and squaring up to prison screws. By providing them with such contradictions, though, co-writer and director Michael Lynch makes the thugs more human, plausible characters. In fact, when among their own kind, both Loyalist and Republicans seem to be perfectly reasonable, decent men. It’s only when they meet each other or guards that we can see the justification behind them being called murderers. They seem nice enough, until you remember that they’ve been locked up for murders, bombings and sectarian violence.
Though the script’s based around interviews with ex-inmates, there’s still only so much of what’s presented onstage that can be true. But because of those interviews, it all has a ring of authenticity. If nothing else, there are occasional echoes of ‘The Great Escape’ when prisoners talk about escape committees and concerts arranged as distractions. Not that there’s any attempt to compare Thatcher’s British institution to Nazi Germany. Well, not really, but it’s understandable that ‘imperialist’ Britain doesn’t come out of this too well.
What’s important is the different way these people are perceived. To the British, the prisoners were violent, murdering thugs, but those same men were heroes to many in the Republican communities – and the same is true of the smaller number of Loyalist internees. So to the Republican men, the British are colonial aggressors not a people trying to bring order. The ones paying the wardens are hardly any better than those wardens, who are almost as brutal as the men they’re keeping under lock and key. In fact, when one prisoner questions why psychopaths are locking up decent men fighting in the name of liberty he seems to have a point. The arbitrary beatings don’t help.
It’s entirely possible that a more in-depth knowledge of the period helps make this piece even more impressive – more in-depth than I have anyway. Without background, this is brave and non-biased documentary of a troubled period of Irish history. With background knowledge, it’s worth a standing ovation. At least, I assume that’s why the rest of the audience stood at the end to applaud.