Playing at cops and robbers when all the world's a courthouse
Liam Heylin drew on his court reports and interviews with inmates for his latest play – so how did it go down when he brought it inside?
Every now and then, colloquial gems appear in the court reporting of journalist Liam Heylin, who writes for the Irish Examiner and Evening Echo. Heylin will often include a surreal quote or line of questioning in his daily reports, such as the answer one local youth gave to gardaí when they requested his name: “George f**king Clooney from The Lough.”
Heylin has been covering the courts for close to 15 years, and, as he says: “So much of human life goes through the courts that the depth of experience you find washing through there is amazing. Often, by the time people come to court, their lives are not in a good place.”
There is only so much of that human experience a reporter can relay in a 300-word news report. Heylin, who has written for the stage in the past, decided to try and recount some of the personalities and experiences he has observed and put them in a stage play.
In order to do this, he organised a visit with 12 inmates at Cork prison. When Heylin arrived, he realised he had reported on all but one of their cases. “I had written about what had brought them into prison and one or two were winding me up about it. They took it on the chin though, in fairness,” he says.
“My approach when court reporting has been to write it straight. The stuff is hairy and scary enough and it doesn’t need embellishment by a journalist. For the guys I was talking to, a journalist writing about what brought them into jail is the least of their problems.”
Those conversations, combined with some of his other observations over the years, have been used in Love, Peace and Robbery, which gets an outing by the Cork Rep Company at the Cork Arts Theatre in January. In the play, two Cork youths, Garry and Darren, are under curfew and determined to go straight after they take on one last job. The job in question is a post-office robbery and it was inspired by real-life events, in a case Heylin covered.
“One of the cases behind the play was where two lads planned a small robbery so much that they went on the internet and ordered these things called stingers. These are spikes on a big strap that you throw on the road if you are being pursued by cars. It was pure race-for-the-Mexican-border-type stuff. If I had put half of what came out at that trial in the play, people would called it too far-fetched.”
To illustrate this point, he tells me about a conversation he had with a solicitor whose client was caught breaking into a furniture warehouse. His legs were hanging out a window about six feet above the road when gardaí arrived on the scene in the early hours of the morning and arrested the individual. When the suspect was instructing his solicitor, his line of defence was: “I do a bit of contract cleaning and I was just pricing a job.”
On another occasion, a defendant gave his name in the Bridewell Garda Station as Mickey Mouse, and this name appeared on the charge sheet. When the case came before the court, the judge played along by stating: “Bring out Mr Mouse.”
The real test for Heylin came when he put on a version of the play in Cork prison for some of the inmates. “It was such a great buzz. We put it on in a room with no stage, and the inmates were turning around to each other and responding to lines that others wouldn’t have,” he says. “I did want the play to be funny and have the kind of chaotic energy they have in their lives, but I didn’t want it to be unsympathetic. I’m not laughing at them, and if I had been, they would have copped it pretty quickly.”After the performance, the inmates remained convinced the actors had served time in prison such was the authenticity of their performances.
While there is much humour in the play, Heylin also manages to get at the social causes and explanations for crime, without glorifying the lives some criminals lead. “People play out their lives at high levels of emotion in courtrooms,” he says. “It is a fantastic place for a writer interested in how people speak and express things. You hear how people lie, how they fool themselves and how they try to fool other people. It is already a form of theatre.”
Love, Peace and Robbery is at the Cork Arts Theatre from January 15th to 26th. corkartstheatre.com