GLORY Dazed, a powerful new play about war veterans, was made with the help of prison inmates. Jackie McGlone was there to see it come together
‘I’M A WEAPON, I AM – a lethal weapon,” says James, with a loud laugh, then – his round, friendly face suddenly serious – he announces that he really was a killing machine. Glasgow-born, raised in Yorkshire, James joined the army in 2003, serving with the Paras in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since being medically discharged after a serious leg injury, he has been arrested four times. “When the cops come for me, they always send eight officers – four at the front of the house, four at the rear. One time, they even sent an armed response unit,” he marvels.
“That’s because they think us ex-squaddies are crazy,” interjects Lee, a strapping 22-year-old, who served with the Royal Engineers in Iraq after joining up at the age of 17.
“Yeah, we’re trained to search and capture,” agrees James. “And if you can’t capture, kill.”
Today, James and Lee are inmates of Doncaster’s Category B men’s prison and young offenders institution, where I’m observing a unique scheme run by Second Shot, a film and theatre production company that has worked within these walls with prisoners, ex-offenders, their families and victims of crime since 2010. Their award-winning work is about to be showcased in Edinburgh.
Glory Dazed, a play by Second Shot’s artistic director and writer Cat Jones, is one of five new dramas chosen for the prestigious Old Vic New Voices (OVNV) project, in partnership with Ideas Tap and Underbelly, which comes to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time this year. Launched by Hollywood actor and Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey, OVNV aims to encourage aspiring actors, writers, directors and producers, offering mentoring as well as opportunities to stage their work. This year, more than 200 submissions were received; a dozen were shortlisted.
Over two days in March, I sat in as eager young theatremakers, all hungry for the opportunity to bring their work to the Fringe under the prestigious OVNV banner, pitched their ideas to the five-strong panel led by OVNV director Steve Winter in Ideas Tap’s south-east London headquarters.
They spoke of their dreams, ambitions and passionate enthusiasm for theatre. Each company performed a staged reading, some with starry additions – Shazad Latif (who plays Tariq in the TV series Spooks) led Made from Scratch’s One Hour Only cast, while Downton Abbey star Sophie McShera (she plays Daisy, the ditsy scullery maid) played a barmaid in Glory Dazed, which has won Cat Jones the BBC’s Alfred Bradley Bursary for radio drama.
Glory Dazed made the final cut, along with One Hour Only, a new play by award-winning writer Sabrina Mahfouz; Vicky Graham Productions’ Strong Arm, written and performed by Scots actor-writer Finlay Robertson; Snuff Box Theatre’s Bitch Boxer, by writer and performer CharlotteJosephine; and Scrawl’s Chapel Street, by Luke Barnes.
All of which explains why I am in a large rehearsal studio that was a prison library listening to half a dozen prisoners critiquing the play, set during a lock-in in a Doncaster pub. These former soldiers may look tough as old boots, but they eloquently analyse each of the four characters.
One of them is Jim, a tattoo-wreathed, snaggle-toothed former engineer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Commenting on the main character, ex-serviceman Ray’s estranged wife Carla, he says: “She was RoboCop, wasn’t she? She was wounded, putting up with all his s***, then she decided to fight back.” Chloe Massey, the actress who plays Carla, looks at Jim and simply says: “Wow!”
I watch as two prisoners volunteer to improvise a shocking scene relating to the death of a child suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Actors Samuel Edward-Cook (Ray), Adam Foster (pub manager Sam), Katie West (barmaid Leanne) and Massey listen carefully to what the men have to say, although if the door opens everyone has to raise their voices to be heard above the din created by a group of prisoners, who are building the set for the show’s Edinburgh premiere, on the outside landing.
It’s a surreal experience. I am sitting behind locked doors and gates – I have go through six – as men and youths who are doing time for a range of crimes cheerfully wield electric drills, saws and hammers in the cause of art. They are working out how to create a fold-up pub bar for easy transportation to Edinburgh, under the supervision of an ex-offender now working for Second Shot and a single prison officer.
“I think it’s a mark of how much the prison authorities have grown to trust us and the work we do,” says Jones, 27, introducing her sweating team of joiners. Indeed, when the play comes to the Fringe it is hoped that Scott, a prisoner who has created atmospheric music for the piece, will be allowed out on licence to accompany them to Edinburgh.
“I’ve got a place at college next year,” he tells me. “I can’t believe that something so good has come out of so much bad.”
Kev, who is studying for a BTech in arts and media and learning stage management skills on Glory Dazed, also hopes to be part of the Edinburgh company. “I’m in here for drug-dealing,” he confesses. “I’ve nobody to blame but myself. Stuff happened to me when I was young but that’s no excuse. Thanks to Second Shot, I’m getting a second chance, and I’m gonna take it.”
All the men insist that Glory Dazed is a mirror of their experiences as part of the “forgotten army” in the UK’s jails. Jones wrote the play in response to a number of discussion groups and workshops with ex-servicemen offenders. She wanted to find out why they are over-represented in the prison population. “The National Association of Probation Officers puts the figure at 9 per cent, the biggest single occupational group,” she points out.
Although the offenders with whom she developed the script with have since been released, she has new stories to listen to as the men speak freely in sessions like the one I attend. James was found guilty of money-lending – “loan-sharking,” he elaborates. “I was lost when I left the army,” he says. “It’s hero to zero.”
Lee, who will be released in October after being convicted of committing GBH, was attacked by three men in the street, so he hit back. A trained boxer, he claims that former servicemen are always charged with GBH, never the lesser offence of ABH (assault occasioning actual bodily harm).
“The cops think we’re always combat-ready. Well, I’m graft-ready. My girlfriend’s waiting for me and my boss says I can have my old job back, scaffolding.”
Why do the men think there are so many ex-servicemen in prison? “It’s like being back in barracks, isn’t it,” James explains. “It’s a disciplined regime, everything’s regimented like in the army. You’re told what to do and when. There’s a routine, and we’ve all been trained to cope with that.”
To much laughter as the men go off to roll-call, Kev remarks: “Yeah, but you know who else acclimatises even faster than ex-squaddies to prison life? Public school boys!”
• The Old Vic New Voices/Ideas Tap season is at Underbelly until 26 August. Glory Dazed is at 5pm daily.