The Educational Shakespeare Company, which worked with prisoners at Belfast’s Maghaberry prison, has finally released the DVD Mickey B, a powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth which could prove an important resource for use with young people.
Mickey B, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, shot in Belfast’s Maghaberry Prison (where adult male long-term prisoners provided both crew and cast), is the first feature film to be made in a maximum-security jail. The DVD of Mickey B, which was made in 2007, is now on general release, as the Northern Ireland Prison Service only allowed the use of the prison as a location on the grounds that the film would not be released to the general public for three years. The DVD comprises three discrete but inter-related sections: the drama Mickey B itself, interviews with prisoners as well as members of the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) on the making of the film, and a section which provides an overview on violence in Northern Ireland (the cast and crew of Mickey B came from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds). ‘Macbeth’s greatest motivating factor is his ambition. That’s what drives him, what pushes him on’, explains actor Jason Thompson who plays Ladyboy (a transvestite-take on Lady Macbeth) adding that, ‘There’s plenty of boys in here that are the same. If they weren’t ambitious they wouldn’t be in jail.’
The interview with Thompson is just one of the many challenges the viewer encounters while watching Mickey B. Murderers, gang members, violent offenders, ambitious? You’ve got to be joking! But that’s what’s so brilliant about Mickey B. This gritty, edgy take on Macbeth shakes you up, provokes you even. It’s a dark, uncomfortable and claustrophobic production which is also, paradoxically, moving and because it is so honest, in a strange way, beautiful. For in an age of political short-termism (let’s not do anything to reform our antiquated and overcrowded prisons or the Daily Mail will throw us out of office), where the media increasingly undermines the judiciary (can’t trust judges, they’re all Hampstead liberals) and barks for tougher sentences, Mickey B provides a much-needed reminder of the power of art to transform lives. In this case, this means not only the lives of the prison cast and crew, but the likes of you and me, with all our preconceptions about violent offenders. It reminds us that, at its best, drama provides an alternative means of communication – perhaps the only means of communication that in today’s world is capable of puncturing dominant law and order discourses. How do we move beyond tabloid rhetoric which presents violent offenders as dogs, savages, or the half-animal, half savage ‘ferals of the street’ of home secretary Teresa May’s lurid imagination? Drama allows us to ask, no matter what the crime the person has committed, isn’t he or she a human being? And to ask also of those in authority about the function of prison – to restore humanity or brutalise the prisoner still further?
Mickey B, it is important to note, is not so much Macbeth, but an adaptation, or more accurately a translation of Macbeth into the modern setting of the fictional private prison, Burnam, where gangs of prisoners control the wings. The setting is sparse, with the opening shot welcoming you to the ‘Graveyard of the Forgotten’. The action is punctuated by shots of barbed wire, surveillance cameras, and police dogs barking menacingly. The Witches, who play such a memorable part in tempting Macbeth and driving him to his fate, are replaced by three Bookies, offering odds on the power struggle within Burnam. Characters have different names: hence Banquo becomes Banknote, Macduff, Duffer, Lady Macbeth, Ladyboy. And in a particularly astute move, the English King, with whom Malcolm and Macduff ally themselves in order to restore order to Scotland, becomes the prison governor whom Duffer is forced to ally himself with to unite the wings and restore order to Burnam. Shakespeare often uses particular characters (in Macbeth the Scottish Thane Ross) to act as commentators on the action of the play and its effects on the wider world. It is a device that is translated in Mickey B into a repeated camera shot of an individual prisoner alone in his cell – waiting. For that’s what prisoners do, wait, outside time but passing through a time that knows no end, alone with their thoughts and the knowledge that:
‘Here… the price of life is only half an ounce/ We’re all doing life /We’re all doing time/ Working it out on our own/ Hoping we’ve bet on a winner/ Afraid of losing again/ One man’s revenge…/Is another man’s regret/ What’s done cannot be undone’.
The language of the drama, scripted in part by Jason Thompson and former armed robber, Sam McClean (cast as Duncan, King of Scotland who, since his release, works part-time at ESC) is clipped, tight, violent, drawing on prison vernacular (prisoners are touts, grasses, scumbags and scagheads, while prison guards are variously described as screws or buckets). So that the description of Macbeth and Banquo’s victory in the battle against the rebel forces, which takes place in the second scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is described to Duncan, King of Scotland as ‘worse than a Celtic and Rangers match, then that tout MacDonald, he got help from the dirty Dubliners, our boys were getting the s**t beat out of them, Then Banknote and Mickey B came charging in with iron bars, Mickey B got hold of MacDonald, cracked his head clean open, like an egg, stiffed him tatey bread, old MacDonald bought the farm.’ Jason Thompson as Ladyboy gives a mesmerising performance. Wracked by guilt over the murder of Duffer’s wife and children, Ladyboy’s personality, prior to her eventual suicide, seems to almost dissolve in a hallucinatory frenzy. In contrast, hard man Davy Conway as Mickey B, driven on by forces unleashed by his own pent-up ambition, comes over as ultimately stoical. So that when he utters those immortal words (‘Life’s just a walking shadow … a tale told by an idiot … full of sound and fury … signifying nothing’), my God, but you feel that he understands the power of Shakespeare’s words (probably the most pessimistic lines Shakespeare has ever written!)
Educational Shakespeare Company Director Tom Magill (whose inspiration was Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theatre director and founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed who died in 2009) describes violence as ‘the last realm of the inarticulate’. Prisoners (and the ones selected for the production were deemed ‘non-conforming’, incapable of producing anything worthwhile) found in the production of Mickey B a way of exploring ‘feelings around the violence that they had committed in the past’. ‘He writes about people. He writes about human emotion. He writes about things that really happen’ says one prisoner of Shakespeare, while another translates Macbeth’s reality of tenth-century Scottish Thanes and clan loyalties and betrayals to existing conditions in Northern Ireland. ‘You get that [violence] on the Lower Shankill. You get that kind of problem in the New Lodge Road where I’m from … cliques and gangs.’
And it is precisely this which makes Mickey B such a vital educational tool. It should be used in schools, in courses like citizenship studies and sociology and GCSE English because, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (the box office sensation starring Leonardo Dicaprio) it relates Shakespeare to modern-day issues of gangs and violence. But, perhaps most importantly, it should be used in youth centres, targeting young people at risk of involvement in gangs, crime and violence.(The fact that prisoners came together from across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland also makes it a good tool for dealing with inter-communal gang violence.) Tom Magill explained to IRR News that his dream was to see Mickey B screened in Stormont, the Scottish Assembly and the Houses of Parliament ‘in order to provoke’ (there he goes again, provoking) questions like ‘can we use prisoners as positive educational role models for disaffected youth’. If we can use Mickey B in our classrooms and youth centres, and if we write to our MP asking for parliamentary screenings, maybe Tom’s ambition could come true.
Watch a trailer for Mickey B
Buy a copy of Mickey B here