Theatre N16 @ The Styx – until 2 August
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The Ballad of Reading Gaol isn’t Oscar Wilde’s most cheerful work, and Proforca’s new production explores the darkness and inhumanity of prison life with a stark and stylish flair.
The audience are led into the theatre and stand for a mock role call as the 5 prisoners are called forward and then sit around the bleak concrete stage in near darkness. As the play develops, the sense of being in the prison yard or cells is created by expertly designed lighting effects, with the cast using torches to evoke prison bars, chinks of light and campfires. The slamming of doors and random disturbing sounds also add to the claustrophobic atmosphere.
Director David Brady keeps the cast of five moving as they recite Wilde’s poem, portraying the monotonous exercise and labour of Victorian prisons to the simple balladeer rhythm, but the words are most affecting when they sit amongst the audience and recite – those moments of stillness allowing the despair and beauty of Wilde’s words to soar through the darkness as he contemplates the dehumanisation and brutality of prison. The additional material written by Catrin Keeler, Simon Marshall, James Lewis and Erin Read break up the tale of the Wilde’s soldier waiting for execution with monologues from prisoners. Monster (James Vincent), Guardian (Malcolm Jeffries), Human (Nic James), Innocent (Miles Parker) and Hero (Nick Cope) all explore themes from Wilde’s poem with a 21st century sensibility. The cast all impress, but the writing is variable, with standout moments from Malcolm Jeffries’ disjointed and desperate pleading for human company as he collects the names of fellow prisoners on his body, and Miles Parker’s devastating portrayal of a simple country lad imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Nic Cope’s monologue is a final howl into the darkness full of defiance and hope for a future free from oppression that Wilde would applaud.
There is a lot to admire in this atmospheric production, with some great performances and exciting new writing. Reading Gaol is powerful and thought-provoking, and well worth a look.