February 15, 2013 8:14 pm

Cell culture

The concept of incarceration makes for vivid drama
Timberlake Wertenbaker's 'Our Country's Good' - a study in imprisonment©Donald Cooper

Timberlake Wertenbaker's 'Our Country's Good' - a study in imprisonment

This year has already seen convicts of different stripes in London theatres. Julius Caesar – with a jailbird twist – has been doing time at the Donmar since November; Richard Vergette’s American Justice runs at the Arts; and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker has come to the St James Theatre 25 after its premiere.

Wertenbaker’s play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, which is the story of a production of The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, performed by convicts transported to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. It is a vivid portrait of a brutal penal colony and an articulate expression of the redemptive power of theatre. Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar is, technically, a play about the inmates of an all-women’s prison who do a production of Shakespeare’s play (proficiently, as it happens, with Francis Barber and Harriet Walter playing the leads). American Justice sees a liberal-skinned politician cast himself as the tutor of his daughter’s killer.

It’s enough for us to wonder why incarceration makes good dramatic fare. Last week I put that question to Max Stafford-Clark, the director of Our Country’s Good. According to him, a prison is “an island”. It is foreign and cut-off. It has its own codes and rituals, sexuality, punishment – even a whiff of glamour. It’s also a “capsule of society” with a hierarchy which everyone can recognise. And there is a voyeuristic thrill in viewing people penned in beyond the pale.

Iron bars also create pressure – heat, claustrophobia. And – like rules – are made to be broken. Wertenbaker links incarceration with its antithesis: “It’s freedom versus oppression, freedom versus being stopped, freedom versus being held still. And that is inherently dramatic.”

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escapes, the tale of a member of the Resistance condemned by the Nazis – taut, elegant – shares few of the flavours of Frank Darabont’s much (too much) loved The Shawshank Redemption or, indeed, John Sturges’ The Great Escape with its swanky soundtrack and heroes doing their cocky bit. Yet each plot is motored by the same basic urge to escape.

Of course, incarceration can thrive outside prison walls. Asylums, boarding schools and army barracks are prisons of a kind, just as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, If ... and Full Metal Jacket are prison dramas in many of their particulars. Here, incarceration is mostly psychological: authority represses the freedom of individual expression and the battle between individuality and conformity is the spine of the drama. In these films the urge to escape is no weaker than Andy Dufresne’s urge to leave Shawshank State Penitentiary and, in all three, the denouement is ultra violent.

For the prisoners in Julius Caesar, American Justice and Our Country’s Good, art is the conduit for psychological release. In the latter, a rehearsal process transforms bestial convicts into human actors. By the final curtain, Wertenbaker’s convicts have achieved eloquence, dignity, imagination and love. Put simply, they escape. Yet when I suggest this ending is romantic, the playwright points out that romance is undercut by the certain fact that all the usual barbarity of Sydney Cove will resume tomorrow.

Escape is also poignantly ephemeral at the Donmar: Harriet Walter’s inmate (Brutus) cuts a dejected figure when the play is over and it’s time to return to the cells.

Rather differently, the politician in American Justice spends years feeding his daughter’s killer with literature – by way of revenge. Freed from the servitude of ignorance (so we are told), the murderer is now at leisure to grasp the full weight of his crime and a life sentence without parole.

Bruce Wall, co-founder of the London Shakespeare Workout, has made theatre in prisons from Brixton to Malta for more than 15 years. In his opinion, we relate to the dramatisation of incarceration because “prison is a state of mind. We feel incarcerated whether we write [for a living] or whether we are in prison.”

‘Our Country’s Good’ is at the St James Theatre until March 23, www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

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