"All the history of nothing that passes for life here," says David Ganly, looking out across the small auditorium in a basement wing of Mountjoy Prison. The audience, nearly all of them young men who have been convicted of serious or violent crimes, stare back, seemingly intent on his words.
It's not a typical theatre crowd – none of the prisoners I talk to before this performance of Sebastian Barry's On Blueberry Hill begins has been to a play before – but the subject, the setting and the raw emotion of the drama seem to hit home.
Barry’s play is set right here, in this “mansion by the Royal Canal”, in a cell occupied by PJ (played by Ganly) and Christy (played by Niall Buggy), two murderers whose lives and crimes are tightly bound together. Over the course of 90 minutes, in a series of interlocking monologues, they reveal what has brought them to this place and this point.
Like stepping back 150 years
The Fishamble production directed by Jim Culleton finished its Dublin Theatre Festival run at the Pavilion, in Dún Laoghaire, a couple of weeks ago, and has been to Paris since, but this is a very different sort of venue. Cast, production crew and other noninmate attendees have surrendered their phones and been through a metal detector before making their way into the old Victorian prison.
Despite the fact that the place has been refurbished, with no more slopping out and only one inmate per cell, it still seems like stepping back 150 years. I am asked not to use the names of any prisoners I talk with. Some of them may have been involved in the most infamous crimes and feuds of recent years.
Anne Costelloe, head teacher at Mountjoy's education centre, under whose auspices this performance has been arranged, isn't sure beforehand how things will go. "The guys aren't used to live theatre," she says, warning Ganly and Buggy that there may be more comings and goings and disruptions than they'd normally expect.
The education centre runs courses ranging from basic literacy upwards.
One prisoner in the audience, who is now several years into his life sentence, is in the middle of a social-sciences degree from the Open University. "As a life-sentence prisoner it was desperate hard at first," he says. "But the support from my family and the school has helped me get to grips with it."
Costelloe says she is of the view that prison damages people. “We believe education lessens the damage. We’re not here to cure.”
“What a magical place to bring this play”
Before the play begins Barry says a few words. He talks about how he used to walk along the canal past the high walls of the prison. “What a magical place to bring this play,” he says. “I’m really proud to bring it here.”
At first the audience seems unsure as the two actors unfold their stories. But, as the narrative moves from crime to punishment, they become more involved. There’s little sign of the restlessness we were warned of. And there are moments when something special happens, and the words hit like arrows.
“I barely know what I am saying,” says PJ. “I am trying to unlock a riddle. And we knew we were nothing, we knew we were forgotten men, who would never have business again in the world, who would never again walk about the streets of the city, in the manner of the living.”
When the play ends there’s a burst of loud applause, then the audience is quickly ushered out of the room.
“I’d never seen anything like that before – it’s brilliant,” says one prisoner.
And Barry is unequivocal. “That’s the best audience we’ve ever had.”