Built in 1851, HMP Wandsworth is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe. It currently holds 1628 Category B prisoners. I did not know this.
We are taught not to know an awful lot about prisons, except that they’re places you don’t want to go, and that you don’t want to know the people who end up there. Philosopher Michel Foucault would call a prison a ‘heterotopia of deviation:’ a societal space where things are different, somehow ‘other.’ This spatial otherness suspends the prisoner in a state of half-existence down a dead-end of life, both within and also without the world to which they are deemed a threat.
We are encouraged to block these spaces from our mind, but Luke Barnes and the company of ‘Young Vic Take Part’ want to tackle this unempathetic tendency. Using theatre as a thread between the world outside and inside the prison, The Jumper Factory serves as an urgent reminder that, while these men may have done wrong, we must still see them as human beings: a radical act of empathy in the context of a culture than shuns the prisoner from its imaginary.
The Jumper Factory was originally conceived in collaboration with and for prisoners from Wandsworth. And now, the resulting script has been granted a new lease of life, this time using young actors, both trained and untrained, who have all had previous experience with the criminal justice system.
The use of theatre in prison rehabilitation is a well-trodden concept, almost to the point of cliché. When the performers begin by highlighting the fact that they’re actors in that tiresome Brechtian manner, I worry that the piece will find itself limited by the stereotypical tropes surrounding this ‘socially involved’ genre of performance.
But the nuanced narrative trumps these concerns. An array of prisoner experiences is condensed into a single unnamed character, a voice shared by all actors, and we watch him from the moment of arrest. He leaves behind his mum (who believes he’s going to work in a ‘Jumper Factory’), his girlfriend and his child, and we track his static journey through prison and explore his state of mind.
The stripped-down stage reframes an alternative sense of time, bringing forth the feeling of isolation evoked by the knowledge that the world around you rushes on, leaving you behind bars in the elongated pace and pulses of prison. The company work together slickly, maintaining an aura of authenticity; it’s impossible to tell who and who has not been trained. They riff off each other, mock each other’s lines, finish each other’s sentences, stitching together a communality of experience within a place that is predicated on social disconnection.
A sophisticated technical design punctuates the loosely chronological sequences; the narrative is given space to meander into tangents which focus on inner hopes, and fears, creating sympathetic sketches of the human behind the prisoner. Squares of spotlight stand in for bars, and the prisoners confide what they miss most about the life they want to re-join.
Barnes and the Young Vic company have woven a frank and sensitive kaleidoscope of the prison experience which never strays into the polemic. Neither does it push the boundaries of its genealogy or knock us out of our ivory seats of theatrical privilege. Nevertheless, these kinds of performances are as much about process as they are about product. Leaving with the knowledge that at least one prisoner of Wandsworth thanks the company for saying everything that he is too afraid to articulate, stands as a testament to the enduring need for the empathetic work of theatre in the process of social rehabilitation.
The Jumper Factory is playing The Weston Studio until 23 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Old Vic website.