An important play about racism in British prisons opens tonight in London.
Gladiator Games is playwright Tanika Gupta’s dramatic investigation of the murder of 19-year-old Feltham inmate Zahid Mubarek by his racist white cellmate Robert Stewart in March 2000. Based on testimony given at the Mubarek inquiry, as well as Gupta’s own interviews, it is directed by Charlotte Westenra who previously co-directed Justifying War: Scenes From The Hutton Inquiry. Unlike Justifying War, Gladiator Games is closely but not exclusively factual. Purely documentary scenes are slotted in between imagined scenarios, giving the audience an insight into the dismal prison lives of Zahid and his killer.
The title refers to the alleged practice of prison guards deliberately placing unsuited prisoners in a shared cell in order to bet on the outcome of any fight that may arise. The allegation that this had happened in Zahid’s case was made in an ‘anonymous’ phone call to the Commission for Racial Equality by Duncan Keys, Assistant Secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association in May 2004. Keys withdrew this admission during the Mubarek inquiry and Gupta has said she is not convinced that the practice exists. Hence she inserts a scene where Imtiaz Mubarek explains that the real gladiator games that went on were between his family, the prison service and the government. Perhaps it would simply have been better to choose a different title: the Mubarek inquiry uncovered plenty of questionable practices in the prison service that could have lent their name to the play.
The play is performed by a skeleton cast of five who portray multiple characters. Events are narrated by Ray Panthaki as Imtiaz Mubarek, Zahid’s favourite uncle and the public spokesman for the Mubarek family. The bond between Imtiaz and his nephew is underlined later in the play when Panthaki returns as Zahid himself. Shiv Grewal gives a scene-stealingly flamboyant performance as The Monitoring Project’s Suresh Grover, put in touch with the Mubarek family by the Institute of Race Relations. He is less convincing, however, as Zahid’s father Amin and a host of prison service personnel. Tom McKay’s shaven head gives away his role as the mentally disturbed Robert Stewart, although we meet him first in another guise. McKay’s Stewart is laden with menace but not so one-dimensional that the monstrosity of his actions drowns out the contributing culpability of the chronic indifference of the prison service to both his and Zahid’s welfare. It is an impressively nuanced performance.
The scenes between Zahid and Stewart are the highlight of the play, which can at times be somewhat leaden, self-conscious and didactic. There is, clearly, very little to be light-hearted about in a case where a murder victim’s family has to struggle for four years to get the home secretary to properly investigate the causes of his death. But as a dramatic device, Suresh Grover’s shrugging sarcasm and world-weary quips allow the audience a bit of emotional distance from which it can develop a political perspective. Confronted with the pointedly poignant monologues of Zahid’s mother and father, it is hard to do anything but feel their pain.
One final criticism of the play is that by avoiding Zahid’s history of drug use and the pettiness of the crime that got him into Feltham, Gupta fails to give the audience a sense of the injustice of the incarceration in the first place. And the fact that he was a nice lad with a bright future, as the audience is repeatedly told, is not what makes his easily avoidable murder a tragedy. He deserved equality of treatment and the protection of the prison service from racist psychopaths like Robert Stewart. That there was almost no chance of this happening in an under-funded, overcrowded and institutionally racist place like Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute is the real tragedy for society. One can only hope that when the Mubarek inquiry publishes its findings at the start of next year, this is one of the conclusions it will draw.