Very few kind words have ever been said about the prison system in this or any other nation. While some prisons may be better than others, they are on the whole dehumanising, subject to abuse, and often are not kept to acceptable standards. We know this, and The Examination certainly knows it. The play, however, does not seek to really expand or push this information beyond what most know.
The Examination is two imperfect pieces paired together to make a competent show
The Examination is a semi-verbatim piece about the irish prison system through the lens of one of its two performers- Willie. His days are filled with anti-anxiety pills, breakdowns, the dehumanising process of “slopping out” and food that saps him of his energy and makes his breakdowns worse. He’s made to wear a gorilla suit during the performance, a visual reminder of his transformation from human into animal. This view is tempered by that of his friend Gary, whose perspective on prison and prisoners is tinged with his memory of almost dying from a mugging and is laced with dialogue on born criminal theory. If there is anything that works about this show, it is the dialogue between these two – their chemistry is palpable, and they bring energy, pathos and humor to what could very easily have been a one note play.
The verbatim segments are a touch one note – focusing on the dehumanisation is fair, but I would have preferred some more variety in staging with regards to delivery. The projections behind Willie as he reads his stories are engaging, but don’t break up the lack of movement. Most problematic though is the question of uniqueness. I learn nothing about prison from The Examination that I didn’t learn from watching Orange is The New Black or Oz. Willie and Gary’s dialogues show much about where their opinion stands on the forgiveness of prisoners, but they don’t carry quite as much impact as they should. Furthermore, with all the talk of Born Criminal Theory, I don’t learn much about who the justice system discriminates against. The gorilla costume makes for a compelling visual, but as a metaphor it doesn’t display how Willie has been discriminated against within the penal system because of the way he looks.
These make the visceral power of the verbatim pieces land with the dull thud of an orange hitting the floor. Which is a shame, because they are visceral, the life they describe is nightmarish. And a further shame is that Willie and Gary’s dialogues do make for interesting, though rather basic, moments of thought about the prison system. But the two are paired in a way that does not support the other. The Examination is two imperfect pieces paired together to make a competent show but one that could be better had they been better integrated.