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Jo Caird: Refusing to Pander to Prurience

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Earlier this week I attended the press night of Every Coin, the opening work in Synergy Theatre Project’s festival of new plays written in prison and afterwards, which is running at the Soho Theatre until 21 May. The play, by Carlon Campbell Robinson, who is currently serving a sentence in a high security prison, takes as its context the spread of Islam and Islamic extremism among gang members in prisons.

Every Coin explores some fascinating issues and is performed with great verve by a strong cast, but is not without its flaws. I found that the elevated language of the play’s murderers and drug dealers jarred uncomfortably with the characters’ familiarity with gang culture and their references to their deprived and abusive upbringings. I don’t doubt that highly articulate and politically aware prisoners exist, but I wasn’t convinced that the sorts of conversations Robinson has written are really taking place.

That said though, the play is a compelling piece of work, particularly when taken as a document of life inside and a channeling of one man’s reflections into a multi-character drama. No excuses need be made for Robinson, who wrote Every Coin for a playwriting competition run by Synergy in prisons around the country and received dramaturgical support from the company's new writing manager, Neil Grutchfield ­– it’s just that the playwright’s context adds a level of interest that makes the whole evening a more satisfying affair.

I’m not very comfortable with the fact that my enjoyment of the work is influenced by a sort of prurient fascination with a life so unlike my own, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Synergy has an excellent track record of producing high quality professional work alongside the immensely valuable work it does in prisons and with former prisoners, so audiences in the know will be aware that the company can be trusted, but for those who haven’t heard of it before, the opportunity to peer into an utterly different world is surely a big draw.

The same is true of Clean Break, which does similar work to Synergy, but with a focus on women touched by the criminal justice system. The challenge for both these companies is to create persuasive drama that is relevant to the lives of the men and women whose stories they seek to tell, while avoiding playing to the voyeuristic desires of the audience. It’s a delicate balancing act but one that’s vital to get right if this type of theatre is to have creative integrity and treat those involved with the respect they deserve.

Fortunately, Synergy and Clean Break have each found successful formulas to do just that. Lucy Morrison, head of artistic programme at Clean Break, told me that the key is telling the stories of the women the company works with without paying heed to what an audience might like to see. She explained that actually the playwrights she works with have the opposite problem, feeling the need to lighten the unbelievably bleak material they draw from when writing in order to avoid creating work that is merely depressing. I saw the extraordinary result of this process this week at the Finborough, where a Clean Break commission, Naomi Wallace’s And I and Silence, a play about rape, incarceration and racial abuse, managed to make me laugh as well as weep.

Synergy’s solution, says artistic director Esther Baker (who directed Robinson’s Every Coin), is to focus on giving a platform to emerging voices in an attempt to give a true insight into a world and themes that are rarely discussed. By nurturing the voice of first-time playwright Robinson to ready Every Coin for the stage, the company has done exactly this.

Audiences will always, I think, be attracted by what is gritty, dark and other, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as companies like Synergy and Clean Break continue to make work that sensitively shines a light into this darkness and ultimately leaves audiences enlightened, we can probably forgive a touch of prurience on the way in.


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