Panopticon

Panopticon, written and directed by second year University of Edinburgh student Liam Rees, is set in a women’s prison, into which well-meaning dramatist Julia comes to run a series of workshops involving six selected inmates. They’re a genuinely disparate bunch, including an unrepentant serial killer, a former female soldier, a journalist, and a religious zealot. Julia wants to help them reintegrate into the community and, also try to understand women otherwise out of society’s sight and mind. Although initially suspicious of Julia’s motives, the women come to rely on her workshops and occasional one-to-one sessions, if only to relieve the everyday monotony of prison life.

It’s a shame, though, that all this effort went into simply a one-off performance.

In the cold, compact space of the Bedlam Theatre, their world was effectively presented in a semi-circle platform, a cage constructed out of scaffolding. Clearly, this echoes the 18th century idea of a “Panopticon” – a prison, devised by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which every cell would be visible from a central point. Bentham’s idea was that, given how the inmates would have no idea whether or not they were being observed, they would always err on the side of caution and so moderate their behaviour accordingly. And, to underline this point, the cast do remain on stage all the time.

Yet Julia’s initially fractious entry into this enclosed world – and her promise of creating “a safe place” for them to share and explore their emotions – is simply a trigger for a series of interrupted interactions which gradually crank up emotional tensions and conflict among the prisoners – except, quite deliberately, we’re denied an actual release – rather, male authority is simply reimposed.

Incarceration, especially when linked with gender power politics and wider issues of mental health, is a potentially strong hook on which to explore characters and/or tell a story, but Rees often appears more interested in getting laughs from mocking academically portentous drama theory – “Nobody understands Shakespeare when they read him,” for example. Admittedly, these clearly appealed to quite a few members of this largely student-filled audience, but they did become slight distracting from a script that gradually lost its initial momentum.

The cast, it should be said, were invariably spot on in their roles: Jess Haygarth, in particular, had a wonderfully controlled menace for Catherine Shaw, the serial killer who sees herself “a cat in a mouse’s world” and believes that, while patience may indeed be a virtue, “impatience gets things done”. Yet there are equally the quieter roles performed with restraint and understanding; not least Vincente Ochoa, as the put-upon, over-stressed doctor who somehow became more than just a cypher bemoaning lack of funding for the prison service.

It’s a shame, though, that all this effort went into simply a one-off performance. Yes, it helped give the performance a sense of occasion, and guaranteed a sell-out, but that arguably should have been down to the drama on stage, not simply the rarity of its performance.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

It’s Julia’s first day at work running drama classes in a women’s prison. She wants to understand how they ended up in prison, what life is like on the inside and what lies in wait for them when they’re released. She wants to help but the prisoners have other plans. As sparks fly and tensions mount she’s left questioning if she’s capable of doing any good at all.