by Z. Druick and D. Bhandar
Inmates of William Head Penitentiary, near Metchosin on Vancouver Island, are part of the only prisoner theatre company operating in Canada. The William Head on Stage (WHoS) Theatre Society has mounted 57 productions since 1981. In a rare opportunity to see the inside of a Canadian prison, members of the public surrender their personal items at the door and filter through a security check before they take their seats. This year’s audience was treated to Antigone, Sophocles’ classic take on the tragedy stalking Oedipus’ family. But the play has been given a slick Afro-futurist aesthetic and a reworking by the company to demonstrate a more restorative ending, so that not everyone has to die.
We were the ideal audience members for the WHoS production: it was a first time for both of us to be entering the gates of a prison. All of our belongings left behind, subject to a search and sign in/out protocol for passing through those gates, we also found that we left behind at the gate any assumptions of what or who was to greet us on the other side of the wall. After being driven in a shuttle to the entrance of the theatre hall through the dark streets of the William Head minimum security “neighbourhoods,” we were politely greeted by dark demonic spectres. As they guided us into the hall we took our places on red plastic chairs around a thrust proscenium stage. As the lights dimmed and a ring of Ionic columns came to take precedence over the cinderblock walls, we were soon transported to the ancient city of Thebes. For 90 minutes, we were riveted by the stunning costumes, make up, and set design – not to mention the innovative routines of the dancing chorus – that super-imposed an Afro-futurist aesthetic over the ancient tragedy.
The performance was powerful and gripping, engaging with themes of contemporary moral significance, such as ideas of redemption and restorative justice. The portrayal of Antigone in this space meant that, even amidst death, murder, human anguish and tragedy, there remained the possibility of hope and redemption. The hope came in the form for the ability to rehabilitate a relationship with the power of the State, as demonstrated in the forgiveness ultimately shown towards Creon. The act of redemption is revealed in recovering a sense of humanity in King Creon who eschewed his feeling of duty and love for his family. In the Q&A session with performers and crew that followed, it was clear that the fact that this play was performed within the confines of a prison, where movement is restricted and actions closely surveilled, was an integral part of aesthetic decisions that were made. Performers discussed various debates that they had regarding the moral and ethical questions raised in Antigone. It was challenging for the all-male cast to submit to what it meant to play the roles of women. Working together in a cohesive and productive manner was also challenging at times, as was pointed out by performer who forthrightly stated: “Look, I’m anti-social – that’s probably why I’m in prison.”
Patrolling the edges of the theatre space, guards kept a low profile, but making their presence felt nonetheless. One of the performers pointed out the challenge of having been assigned the role of a guard in the play, no doubt a confronting experience for someone completely subject to the power and authority of this group the rest of the time. Perhaps the play was best summed up by the performer playing Creon: “Putting on a play in a prison is a marathon – but also an obstacle course.”