Theatre: 'You're not in prison when you're on stage. You feel like a human being again'
Phil Kingston used be a drug addict. Now he runs the Abbey's community and education department. That's quite a journey. But the Abbey company has been on an interesting journey itself: from the theatre on Abbey Street to Wheatfield Prison.
The most interesting journey of all, though, is that taken in the opposite direction by the audience at Wheatfield: from the prison to the theatre.
I joined Kingston at a special performance of The Risen People in Wheatfield. It was the Abbey's first production in a prison, and the first of three in a series of "unplugged" performances of the play in community venues. (The final one is on Monday night at Kilbarrack Community Development Project. The Risen People ends its run at the Abbey next Saturday; see www.abbeytheatre.ie.)
This was the most radical thing the Abbey has done in my time covering it. And for a small group of prisoners who joined the cast on stage afterwards to perform a song they had written in response to the play, it was potentially a transformative moment.
Wheatfield was built 25 years ago as an education and training prison, but overcrowding put paid to those lofty ambitions. The current regime is re-emphasising that original remit. Prisoners can earn "enhanced" status, and with it extensive educational opportunities, including drama and music.
They've staged A Whistle in the Dark, The Happy Prince and various Shakespeares. "You're not in prison when you're on stage," they say. The music group rehearse constantly, perform at Mass weekly and play occasional gigs for their fellow prisoners. As musicians, says Ruairi, "you're judged for what you do, not what you are. You're just a person, not a criminal with a history. It makes you feel human again." Their song, Stand Together, is a protest ballad, voicing anger at the state of the country. This fits the play. At the beginning, a quote from Jim Larkin is projected on to the stage: "I have got a divine mission, I believe, to make men and women discontented."
The Wheatfield visit was part of a community and education programme at the Abbey that, under Phil Kingston's direction, and despite a budget that's a tiny fraction of that of the Abbey, appears to be punching far above its weight.
I interviewed Kingston a few years ago. He was then an actor recently relocated to Ireland from England; he was a long-recovered junkie who, while at the prestigious Central drama school in London, had succeeded in transferring his "ambition into addiction" and got clean. (The interview is on www.colinmurphy.ie) But as the recession bit, and his family grew, he decided he needed something more stable than acting. He had been working freelance as a drama facilitator, using drama as a community development and self-exploration tool; talent, audacity and hard work took him into the job at the Abbey.
There, he and a tiny team have been pushing the Abbey out into schools and communities, and bringing those communities back into the Abbey. One gig involved working with sex workers, through the charity Ruhama, to produce a performance in response to Alice in Funderland.
Another gig borrows an idea from the English actor-writer Tim Crouch, whose I, Malvolio tells the back-story of the character in Twelfth Night: they commissioned Ali White to write a one-woman show called Me, Mollser, based on the 15-year-old Mollser in The Plough and the Stars. That's about to start a schools tour; I'll report back on it here.
As Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail told the audience at Wheatfield: "If you can't come to us, we'll come to you." That shouldn't be a radical vision for the national theatre, but it is. No matter – it's happening, and it's invigorating.