Prison dramas are pretty much a genre in their own right and this play from the year 2000 by Stephen Adly Guirgis must rank as one of the best. Tackling faith and justice, it’s a big issues piece with brains that leaves you with plenty to think about. It’s also full of compelling stories with a great plot. Entertaining and intelligent, what’s not to admire?
Guirgis writes the most wonderful roles and dialogue. Still, in presenting a debate, no matter how smart, each part could become a mere mouthpiece. With the help of a strong cast and expert direction from Kate Hewitt, every character is compelling and believable.
Ukweli Roach and Oberon KA Adjepong perform as two convicts thrown together during the one hour outside their cells allowed to them. It’s a simple enough device, but the detail provided by Guirgis is used to great effect by both men. Roach gives an emotional performance as the young Angel Cruz that shows the strain of incarceration gradually and wins sympathy carefully. As Lucius, you might guess that Adjepong gets the best lines, but the combination of charm and mania with which they are delivered is magnificent.
On the other side of the “cage”, Dervla Kirwan gives a great performance as Angel’s lawyer, driving the plot with excellent story-telling skills. The prison guards, played by Matthew Douglas and Joplin Sibtain, present moral ambiguities in a way that feels natural, respectively relating to the criminals in a personal and psychopathically macro level. These three, presumably the characters we are supposed to identify with most, pose provoking challenges to the audience.
Guirgis presents a fallible justice system and religious questions while avoiding the quagmires of moral relativism or scepticism, which means we can get some real-world thinking done! Any revival of a play this good is worth checking out. Hewitt’s production is certainly stylish. In a sense, she works harder than she has to. Using bright lights and discordant jazz in between scenes proves wearying and the set from Magda Willi, while effective, is a little showy. But the most important job, namely understanding and doing justice to the text, is precise and impeccable throughout.
Until 30 March 2019
Photos by Johan Persson