At the interval Mental Flatmate was a bit glum. ‘There’s not enough grime,’ he complained. ‘Prison’s all about knives and gangs, you know?’ He paused and stared silently at his beer for a full minute. ‘They haven’t got enough hate.’
Mental Flatmate reads the Daily Mail and gets intimidated by the school kids who hang around the end of our street smoking and looking cold. I don’t know where MF gets his knowledge of prison from, I’m fairly sure he’s never been in one, but he carries himself like a lag. He’s been wearing the same tracksuit top for months and he has one of those thousand mile stares that makes girls on the tube get up and move.
For anyone apart from Max Mosley, Rex Obano’s first play Slaves, performed at Theatre 503 – which includes full body cavity searches, onstage masturbation, semen gargling and stories of bullying in Wandsworth prison ― isn’t precisely what you’d call a first date play. So it had seemed sensible to take MF instead, but he was definitely restless. ‘I could be at home playing Worms. There’s a Friday league.’
Something in the second half however turned him round.
‘That was good.’
‘What was good about it?’
To be fair to MF my thoughts followed a similar trajectory. After forty minutes which didn’t quite balance its mixture of shock reportage, coming of age tale and ‘meditation on human bondage’ (the direction throughout was a touch stodgy) it really started to motor. The characters’ story arcs began to bind, tension increased, the audience craned forward because they cared.
A lot of this was down to a superb cast. Lead Adetomiwa Edum did well to bring credibility and sympathy to a character whose actions and outlook often seemed to lack consistency. He has bright future, though the surest sign of his talent was evident in his ability to keep up with three actors on the top of their game. Paul Bentall playing gruff guard White, David Burt as the superbly cynical prison governor and the terrifying Cornel S. John, as an aging murderer Reuben, all clearly relished a script which at its moments was simultaneously filthy, funny and moving. And crucially knowing.
Obano has clearly done his research. He knows how drugs get into prison, understands how guards are compromised and uses prison patois with a flair and confidence few first time playwrights could match. Yet his message is bleak and perhaps surprisingly for fringe theatre, arguably conservative.
One line of thought followed through the play runs counter to our usual view of self-knowledge: that if it is not an unqualified good, it is at least consoling. Instead Obano’s prisoners and guards, trapped in uneasy alliances and denied privacy, come to see themselves only as limited, cynical, shabby. If there is a difference between guards and prisoners, it seems to be that the guards know these limitations and accordingly wall in their own fantasies in ways the prisoners can’t or won’t. Edun’s naive young officer learns by trial and error―by accumulating bruises―how to avoid deeper wounds. He learns he’s closer to his fellow white officers than the black prisoners he’s been sent to ‘connect with’.
By contrast the prisoners’ greatest collective vice is a kind of vaulting ambition: prison a deserved purgatory. Anger at the system, at racial inequality, at a country which proclaims ‘Britons never will be slaves’, even at blind circumstance― are all ‘revealed’ as displaced rage against themselves. Against their failure to take control. Punishment matters as much, if not more than rehabilitation, and the worst punishment is knowing you deserve it, and you’re too weak to change.
This is a good first play and look forward to seeing Obano’s future work.