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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 freedom.

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.

Slaves 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 work.

Well, 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.

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

I 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 yourself.

What do you want audience members to take away from seeing the show?

It’s 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. Was it difficult to hand the play over to the actors and creative team?

Nadia Latif 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.

Theatre503 is such an intimate space; did you have the venue in mind when writing the play?

I 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.

And 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.