Brief Encounter With … Rex Obano

Rex Obano’s play Slaves opens at Theatre503 on 26 January and runs until 20
February. Set in HMP Wandsworth, it tells the story of the clash between Chris,
a rising star prison guard and Jenks, an inmate who longs for his

Obano was selected from 200 of the
country’s most promising new voices to receive Theatre503’s first ever
commissioning award. He and the four other inaugural members of the 503Five,
each of them unproduced playwrights, will be resident at the Battersea venue
for a year, both writing plays to be developed at the theatre and taking part
in the decision-making process with Theatre503’s creative team. Slaves is Obano’s first full-length play
and the one that led to his invitation to join the 503Five.

is your first full-length play; tell me what it was like to be produced by
Theatre503, a venue with such a strong reputation for developing new

Theatre503 is a writers’ theatre so they want to put the writer at the
forefront of not only production, but in terms of decision-making as the
theatrical season is programmed. I’ve never been all the way through the
process for a full-length play before so it’s a learning curve. I’ve done short
plays and readings up until now and purposefully did not want to write a
full-length play until I thought I was ready. I think it was important to me to
learn the form, the craft. So it wasn’t until the idea of Slaves
came along that I thought I was ready to write a full-length play.

were inspired to write Slaves
during a period working at HMS Wandsworth; what about that situation made you
want to write the play?

was an OSG – Operational Support Grade, basically a security guard – for about
seven months, so I had a lot of time to think. I feel quite precious because
when I was working there I was working there; I wasn’t doing research, I didn’t
go in there for any other reason apart from earn money. The reality of prison
is very harsh and dabbling into it – dabbling into people’s lives – can feel
quite insulting. So it’s a play about prisons in general. It’s to do with the
wider institution. It’s also about the prison bars you put up within

do you want audience members to take away from seeing the

about looking inside the institution, inside a world that ordinarily, apart
from via programmes like Porridge
and Bad Girls, we don’t
really want to know about. It’s safer for us as law-abiding citizens to think,
‘lock them up, throw away the key and as long as they’re not mugging me or
breaking into my car, then I don’t want to know what goes on inside’. So
Slaves aims to open it up and get people
to see what really happens. I suppose if Slaves
does anything, it shows what it’s like to be institionalised. I’m using prison
here, maybe because it fits the metaphor but it could be the police, it could
be the army, it could be the civil service, and the journey that the main
character goes through could be similar in most institutions.

it difficult to hand the play over to the actors and creative team?

is fantastic. You want a director who actually gets it, and she gets it.
Changes come a lot easier in that environment. I think that as a writer you get
rigid about your ideas of the play. Nadia is doing what I can’t. I can’t tell
the actors to do this, that and the other, but she can and I fully trust her on
that. There has to be a time where you let the actors take the characters on.

is such an intimate space; did you have the venue in mind when writing the

didn’t write the play for the space but I was so pleased to see how small it is
because it works to its advantage. One of the things you get from being in the
prison environment is how small the cells are; with this play you get that
claustrophobia and hopefully you will feel some of the things that the play
suggests through the claustrophobia.

after Slaves what’s
next from Rex Obano?

There’s another
play that I’ve written, which is part of the 503Five. Each writer, five of the
503Five and five other writers, had to pick a year to write about to complete
the whole of the last decade just gone. I picked 2009 and my play’s called London. It’s a bit weird
thinking what play can sum up the year, but the event of last year for me was
Nick Griffin on Question Time because that was a watershed moment leading up
to a particular legitimizing of the BNP. My play deals with a young Muslim man
who turns up the next day at a BNP meeting and won’t leave.

I’m all about
telling stories. This is my take on the world, this is what’s in my head. I’m
fortunate that I’ve got this opportunity to do my shows and hope that people
appreciate where it comes from.