It’s almost 40 years since Billy Hayes endured a gruelling and anxiety-inducing escape from Turkey’s Imrali Island Prison. Yet even long after having successfully reclaimed his own freedom, in the Downstairs of Soho Theatre tears spring to Hayes’s eyes as he tells of the searing moment when he came to appreciate the harsh consequences of his decisions.
As a young man in 1970, Hayes regularly walked a fine line between harmless fun and criminal activity. He flew back and forth from the USA to Turkey where he would seek out cheap and readily available hash, cunningly hide it in self-made casts around his legs and traffic it back home hassle-free. It was an incredibly lucky spell, and Hayes regrettably tried his luck a few too many times because, as he tells us “when you’re young you think you’re invincible”. In a crackdown on airport security by the Turks, in a bid to demonstrate their allegiance to the war on drugs to the Nixon administration, Hayes was sentenced to five years behind bars – a ruling which was later increased to 30 years. Hearing this mere weeks before his initial release date, Hayes was instilled with an unrivaled determination to leave his life behind bars, and so his midnight escapade began.
Fast forward a few decades and Hayes stands centre on an unadorned stage. It’s a tale that’s been told many a time, first in Hayes’s book, Midnight Express, then adapted for Alan Parker’s Oscar-winning film – which he points out differs vastly from the true events of his escape – and was later even developed into a ballet. Now it’s brought to us in its rawest form yet. Live on stage, Hayes’s retelling is a vivid and affecting performance. He is unreservedly animated throughout, drawing us right into the action. Leaping fluidly from one event to another he presents us with a rapid and engrossing account. It’s a perfected act of storytelling: Hayes navigates the tale slickly, making sure to pause and clarify cultural references for us, whilst indulging us with sudden exhilarating twists.
Hayes’s performance is littered with humour and filled with near-misses that make it easy to forget that this isn’t a blockbuster plot, but rather a young man’s life laid out before us. Through it all though is an organic and ingrained reaction to his own retelling that snaps us back to reality. At points he wells up, visibly choked by the memory of his harrowing experiences in prison. There’s a lot more to it all than can be crammed into a 70 minute performance, Hayes notes. What we are given is remarkable nonetheless and it’s told with a unique sense of wisdom and vulnerability that will be difficult to forget.
Riding The Midnight Express is playing at the Soho Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.