Reviewed – 5th April 2019
“a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes”
The premise for Alexis Michalik’s play is a simple one: a director, an actor and a social worker go into a maximum security prison to hold a drama class for the inmates. Only two prisoners turn up. The class goes ahead anyway, and truths are revealed. It is described in the press release as ‘a captivating and darkly comic exploration of life, within the walls’, and, at a time when knife crime is on the rise in London, and just under 79,000 men are currently being held in British prisons (figure from Home Office website) this seemed like a brave and timely piece of theatre for the Park to be staging. Instead, what a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes it was.
In the programme notes, Michalik describes meeting some maximum security prisoners and how this meeting intrigued him sufficiently to lead him to write this play. One can only wish that this interest had led him to do some more thorough research. Among the more idiotic plot points of this drama was the fact that a child was conceived between a maximum security prisoner and a visitor during visiting time. As someone who has spent a great deal of time visiting prisons in the UK over the past three years, this reviewer can testify to the complete impossibility of this premise. Similarly, the idea of three lay people with little or no prison experience behind them being left alone with two violent offenders is absurd, as is the fact that the director would (a) be allowed and (b) have the utter front to ask an allegedly violent offender to re-enact the circumstances that led him to his imprisonment. There are some extraordinary companies and organisations creating drama with prisoners and ex-offenders in this country (Clean Break and Synergy Theatre Project to name two); it might have been an idea to engage with them.
The play is translated from the French, so it may well be that some of these issues are explained by cultural difference, but if you are clearly locating the action in the UK – Norwich and Durham are name-checked – this is basic stuff.
The drama opens with the director (played, with meta-theatrical symmetry, by the director, Che Walker) asking the audience directly, ‘What does theatre mean to you?’. The first audience member to answer replied ‘Storytelling’, and here, alas, this play fell short. It was impossible to understand why this story was being told, and also, particularly in the second half, it was not easy to follow such story as there was, as it was being told. Che’s director-character also made much of the power of emotion, and again, despite numerous on-stage breakdowns, the performances here, by and large, remained resolutely surface and unconnected throughout. Victor Gardener, as Angel, brought some welcome gravitas to the stage, but the characterisation in the main seemed skittish, rushed and unfocused. It takes more than a change of accent to outline a new character, and the lack of physical change in the performers from role to role was notable.
Accents that worked well were found in the sound and lighting design. Rio Kai’s double bass playing in the onstage underscore was a highlight, and David Howe provided some deft atmospheric changes with his lighting design, particularly against the back wall. Despite these efforts however, and ironically, given its meta-theatrical nature, Intra Muros remained theatrically unsatisfying, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com
Photography by Edward Johnson
Park Theatre until 4th May
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: