For over thirty years, Clean Break have used theatre for personal and political change, working with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. Last year, the company commissioned six of the most exciting female voices in British theatre to write about these women, and presented the plays at Soho Theatre under the title Charged. The six – ‘blisteringly powerful‘ (Guardian) – short plays were presented over one evening, and published by NHB in a single volume. This week, three of the plays were brought back for another season at Soho Theatre, and here, the playwrights Sam Holcroft, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Chloë Moss introduce them…
Sam Holcroft on Dancing Bears
Clean Break asked me to write a short play as part of a collective of plays exploring different themes under the umbrella of ‘women affected by the criminal justice system’. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with Clean Break. They are an outstanding company and have created some fantastic theatre. Lucy Kirkwood’s It Felt Empty… and Chloë Moss’s This Wide Night are two of the most brilliant plays about women I’ve seen. So how to follow on, and what to write? I have always enjoyed writing about young people (among other things, I’m guilty of piggy-backing on their energy for dramatic effect). And so I proposed to write about young girls’ experiences of gang-life, and the crimes they are both victim of and perpetrate. I began researching several months before putting pen to paper. You don’t have to dig deep to find many extraordinary stories of suffering, triumph and gut-twisting injustice. Clean Break put me in touch with women who had experience of gang culture and they kindly shared their stories with me. I also attended the 2010 Nacro Youth Justice Conference and spoke with social workers, police, teachers and health professionals who helped to shed light on the psychology behind gang-related behaviour. And slowly but surely a structure began to emerge.
It seemed that all-female gangs often evolved as offshoots from mixed-gender gangs. Girls were choosing to set up on their own to avoid the misogyny, violence and lower social status afforded them in mixed-gender gangs. But, sadly, sooner or later these new all-female gangs would begin to mirror the hierarchies of the mixed-gender gangs they’d left behind. And these hierarchies would be daily reinforced by threats and violence against girls at the bottom of the chain from girls higher up. So it seemed impossible to write a play without both male and female characters in order to explore this mirroring of behaviour. Clean Break has a policy of working with only women and so all characters in the play, whether male or female, are played by women. But I soon realised that this would work in favour of the drama. Boys could morph into girls before our eyes: their machismo give way to femininity; their hunched shoulders drop; they would arch their backs – like a ripple effect, a stage of boys would become a stage of girls. However as we continue to watch, unintentionally, they would begin to mimic the boys they were fleeing from, and this time instead of knives they would wield guns.
Audiences seemed to respond well to the play in its first production at Soho Theatre in 2010 and extremely well to the event as a whole. It was full of such joy despite the sadness and suffering inherent in the stories. The challenge given to us by Clean Break was not to write a presentation of grim statistics, or a catalogue of suffering, but to package the information in a compelling format and to entertain as well as awaken. Hopefully you walk away from the night both inspired and shell-shocked, and asking questions of our justice system and how we can begin to ask for change.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz on That Almost Unnameable Lust
I had done a few sessions teaching male prisoners in Brixton prison. I’d found it very challenging. It seemed to me that there were severe mental health issues that weren’t being addressed. The men were paid £1 to come along and do a writing class and a couple of them were in a catatonic state, listening and patiently scribbling for two hours to get their valuable pocket money. Others were passionate about the class and made me feel there was far too little on offer for them in terms of expressing themselves. So when Clean Break asked me to write about women in prison I was keen to do it.
I went to Peterborough prison and met a group of nine older women. All were over fifty, but some of them looked far older than their years; they had what was termed ‘prison skin’ because they had been exposed to so little natural light. All of the women were fascinating. One had been a drug mule; vehement in her innocence, I suspected she was guilty but needed to believe her own story just to get by. Another woman seemed very much away from this world and obviously enraged the others with her paranoia and egomania – she needed help and was getting none. The sturdiest of them had killed her husband after decades of beatings. I liked her very much, and respected her quiet strength and intelligence. They were all deeply articulate and funny. And yet you could read the damage in their faces. Those who were bereft at the separation from their children. Those who could not fit in socially and so were living a completely insular life. And then there were those who made of prison life an art form of friendships and talk and relationships. Nobody could think about the long term of it. One day at a time was all they could do. A few were ‘lifers’. Others were there for a few years for fraud. The energy that they had was amazing and I felt very alive to their predicaments and sorrows. And yet when I left I looked back at this huge ugly edifice and realised they were at least temporarily invisible. I admired the prison supporters who went in every week to hear their needs and requests and to help them with forms and procedures which left them at sea. Their main fear was of being invisible.
The woman who had murdered her husband said to me at one point, ‘I smile, and I talk to you, but inside I’m screaming. Every minute. I’m screaming.’ And she was the one who laughed most and seemed to support the group and the lame ducks. There was incredible strength there but also this fragility of simply being inside. Leaving them, I felt only one certain fact, that incarceration as we have it now is a thoroughly deadening process. Economically unviable, and spiritually facile. I didn’t know how best to summarise or dramatise their stories. I wanted to give them a voice. So I simply built on what I’d seen and felt, and ended up with part fact, mostly fiction, but hopefully embodying the spirit of those I had met.
Chloë Moss on Fatal Light
Fatal Light tells the story of Jay, a vulnerable young single mother who’s simply trying her best to bring her daughter up and is eventually sent to prison.
At the beginning of the research process, Clean Break put me in touch with Inquest – a charity concerned with the treatment and care of people in custody leading up to and around their death and then the care of the bereaved families afterwards.
All the bereaved family members that I either met or read about agreed that Inquest was an absolute lifeline for them; they would have been very much in the dark if it wasn’t for the support, and most importantly, information they received through the charity.
The first scene in Fatal Light is based loosely on one family’s experience of being visited by a young police officer who got the name of their sister wrong and then couldn’t even confirm whether she was still alive, just that there had been ‘a serious incident’. The officer had been sent from a local police station and had been given scant, incorrect information. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence.
Another thing that came up a lot during the research process was that, although prison sentences are often utterly devastating to the families of women in prison, there was an assumption that at the very least, their loved ones would be safe inside. Even though prison was the last place that their sister, mother, daughter should be, they trusted that they couldn’t come to any harm. That’s clearly not the case at all. The vulnerable are constantly being criminalised for having mental health problems.
One woman tried to commit suicide in her flat by setting fire to her couch, then realised that she was putting other people in the building in danger. She tried unsuccessfully to put it out herself, and phoned the fire brigade, but still got a hefty sentence for arson. Tragically, though perhaps inevitably, she killed herself in prison.
The Corston report (a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system) was published in March 2007, following the deaths of six women at HMP Styal in just over twelve months. Four years later, there has been slow progress in implementing its recommendations for the sentencing and treatment of female prisoners. There are still so many cases of women who’ve spent their lives dealing with mental health problems and abuse, who are then incarcerated miles from families, support networks… their kids. Prison is the final straw for them.
The subject matter of Fatal Light is bleak of course, but that’s because the reality of the situation is bleak and therefore it’s hugely important to tell these stories and to question why deaths in custody keep happening.
I actually think the play itself is, strangely, quite hopeful. Lucy Morrison’s brilliant direction injects lots of warmth and humour and shows the immense amount of love between the three characters. The piece plays backwards in time and ends with Jay in a positive situation. Starting with her death and working backwards serves to highlight how avoidable these tragedies really are.
Re-Charged continues its run at Soho Theatre until 9th April. If you can’t get to see it, then you can buy the fantastic value playtext featuring all of the six plays by E V Crowe, Sam Holcroft, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Chloë Moss, Winsome Pinnock and Rebecca Prichard for just £9.99 with free P&P (UK customers only). Click here, and quote ‘BLOGOFFER’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also save £5 off full-price tickets (£3 off concessions) if you quote ‘PLAYTEXT’ when booking through the venue’s box office, Tel: 020 7478 0100.