Gary Keegan and Willie White in The Examination. Image uncredited
There's a rule which says always leave them wanting more. Then there's the rule about exceptions to the rule. Brokentalkers award winning The Examination being a case in point. Created by Brokentalkers' stalwarts Gary Keegan and Fiedlim Cannon, The Examination is fashioned from theatre workshops and hours of interviews conducted with prisoners and served up with meta-theatrical ingenuity. Part of a five year study of healthcare in prisons undertaken by Associate Professor Catherine Cox (UCD), along with Professor Hilary Marland and Doctor Rachel Bennett (University of Warwick), it examines institutionalised bad practices where gradual change looks like standing still. Made more worrying by conditions, like slopping out (using a bucket to excrete into, often in front of other prisoners, then washing it out daily), being swapped out for equally bad conditions like overcrowding. Or prisoners being medicated, legally and illegally, to sedate their anxiety, depression, anger and fear. Just ask former prisoner and addict, Willie White. Which is exactly what Gary Keegan does. Brokentalkers simple, two handed conceit yielding a profoundly moving production, despite leaving much unsaid.
If healthcare were the entirety of The Examination's case, it would have made its points brilliantly. But it dips its toe into deeper waters in an effort to take a sledgehammer to generalised prejudices against prisoners. Challenging us to look at how we judge criminals by their looks, voice, and especially their class. See criminals as animals, or through outdated idiocies. Taking the notion of the born criminal as a norm, a result of nature rather than nurture.
Willie White in The Examination. Image uncredited
But maybe it's not so bad. Prison is a holiday camp, and prisoners have the best of everything. Arguments delivered by a clean cut and unsympathetic Gary Keegan who, as a victim of crime, has a justifiable chip on his shoulder. Keegan making weak points directly to the audience, sounding like a stockbroker furious his mocca-latte with a cinnamon twist had too little cinnamon. Someone whose views it should be impossible to take seriously. But people do, that being part of the point Keegan is making. His points repeatedly shot down by stand up comedian, Wille White, as the patron saint of reformed prisoners in a too tidy reversal of hero and villain. The cuddly, infinitely patient, wiser and far funnier White walking his path to redemption. The prisoner freeing himself from the prison of his past by facing it, the victim still a prisoner to his.
All of which The Examination touches on but doesn't say enough about as it strays further from its healthcare investigation. If it underscores how prison is seen as a deterrent by way of punishment, it's weaker when it comes to interrogating prison as a place for rehabilitation. If the work of PACE is properly acknowledged, their remit is parolees, not prisoners. Leaving prisoners on a path were six out of ten will probably die too young, most, if not all of those remaining returning to drugs or crime. Given such a failure rate, if prison was a business someone would have fired the board and sued them for negligence. Making Willie White all the more remarkable. White's redemption less the rule so much as the exception to it.
Willie White in The Examination. Image uncredited.
Two men, a cell, a table, AV images and, oh, an ape. At times heavy handed (tossing medication at prisoners with vindictive hatred), at others right on the money (the mopping scene, Gareth Gowen's animation and AV design, Denis Clohessy's music and sound, Stephen Dodd's lights, Sarah Foley's costumes), there's also moments that simply take your breathe away. And White is at the centre of all of them. While there's a Brechtian blurring of character and actor in play, White proves astonishing however he plays it. His response to being told prison is a holiday camp, his rendition of Over The Rainbow, his having a near psychotic breakdown, or simply his mild mannered walking across the stage sees a brilliant White exercising more than good luck for finding a role made to fit. Showing instead both a practiced and instinctive talent, well deserving of his accolades. As is The Examination.
The Examination, presented by Brokentalkers and UCD School of History, runs at The Project Arts Centre as part of Live Collision International Festival until April 30.
For more information visit Project Arts Centre