Mickey B Shot at Maghaberry
The Educational Shakespeare Company are taking the Bard behind bars
An impenetrable grey knot in the surrounding green of the Co Antrim countryside, HMP Maghaberry is as unlikely a location to shoot a film as the 25 inmates that make up the cast.
The prison’s steely milieu is precisely the place chosen by the Educational Shakespeare Company for their most recent project, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In recontextualising the Bard’s text from 17th century Scotland to the modern-day confines of the NI prison service, certain stylistic concessions have been made.
‘We’ve changed some names in our adaptation,’ says ESC director Tom Magill. ‘So Macbeth becomes Mickey B, Banquo becomes Banknote and our Lady Macbeth becomes Ladyboy.’
Magill and fellow filmmaker Simon Wood have been teaching drama and film in Maghaberry for the past four years, and have already made two award-winning short films with prisoners.
One of the many goals of the ESC is to furnish the men involved with practical creative skills and a tangible example of the benefits of teamwork and co-operation.
Mickey B is not the first project of its kind. Previous projects include Romeo & Juliet, transferred to the streets of Belfast, Gatecrashed, dealing with life in hostels for the homeless, and social study An Wha?.
‘The girl from our film An Wha?, a film that she wrote, had a 46% attendance record at school, says Magill. ‘The teachers said, "don’t have her in your group, she’s trouble. Don’t take her".
‘When she came to our project she had 99% attendance. Now she’s doing a diploma in performing arts. Our group is for precisely that type of child.’
After receiving individual photographic identification and passing through x-ray, magnetic and palm recognition security measures, visitors to HMP Maghaberry can view the prison’s Resettlement Centre, where along with Mickey B, a number of other educational activities are accommodated.
Appearing as an industrious cross between a call centre and a school technology department, the Resettlement Centre allows inmates to develop literacy and numeracy skills, produce Braille books for the blind and, in the festive months, make ‘reindeer dust’ to go on sale in association with the NI Children’s Hospice.
The productive image is at odds with the conventional view of prison life. This is something the ESC’s projects actively seek to develop. The large sets for Mickey B have been constructed in Maghaberry’s brickwork and joinery rooms, over two weekends of concerted co-operation between the prisoners and prison officers.
‘There’s talent in here,’ says William*, a prisoner accompanying the guided tour, eager to highlight the effort of all involved in the film’s production.
‘Everyone has a bad impression of jails,’ he says, standing next to a long, thin strip of wooden cell doors.
‘We try and get the craic going, but it’s two-sided. There’s the eye in sky there to make sure we’re working. Prisoners are human beings and not so different to anyone else. Most are in here for two-second mistakes. Everybody has been getting involved.
‘Most are illiterate so we’ve had to adapt the plot and put our own language in. The play’s a bit violent and we’ve kept the cursing to a minimum,’ he explains. ‘But, y’know, it’s Shakespeare.’ William is imprisoned in Maghaberry on a life sentence.
Macbeth’s themes of treachery, lust for power and prophetic downfall may seem insensitive or inappropriate for the environment, but these elements provide the project’s rehabilitative thrust.
‘We’ve added a scene in the film's conclusion which emphasises the cyclical nature of violence,' says Magill.
‘It’s to show that if you achieve your ends using violent means, you will have to face the consequences, come what may.’
The screenplay for Mickey B, developed and revised again and again by prisoners, allows the cast to safely explore past misdeeds through collaborative and creative play, acting as an alternative method of educating non-traditional learners.
Props like shanks and blades have been constructed by Prison Warden Peter. Fashioned from plastic and wood, they are kept under lock and key when not in use.
The prop and set design are but two of the production tasks that staff and prisoners have toiled and troubled over, the complete list including gaffer work, storyboarding, continuity and music production.
The filming of Act 2, Scene 3, in which King Duncan is found slain in his bed, takes place in a replica of one Maghaberry’s 745 single cells; 13x7ft with an open top to allow high-angle shots.
Prisoner Anthony has spent time in both Hydebank and Magilligan prisons, and describes the ESC’s drama as ‘one of the best things’ he has been involved in.
On the set, amidst monitored rowdiness and blunt banter, he says that most prisoners have never been involved in a constructive project of this scale before and that one of the big benefits is being allowed to participate in something that brings individual skills like joinery, brickwork and media together.
The filming of Mickey B takes place before the opening of Maghaberry’s new multimedia suite, a facility aimed at training both inmates and staff in film and new media, to provide a greater range of more satisfying job opportunities for prisoners who serve their sentences.
This rather idyllic picture is an anathema to those who believe that incarcerated persons relinquish the right to recreation; that inmates lose such privilege by virtue of being imprisoned in the first place.
‘I’ve encountered that view in the past,’ says Magill.
‘I answer it thus: as one prisoner so eloquently put it, "if people ignore us and let us do our time behind the doors, we will take as many drugs as possible to pass the time, and come out the other end even worse".’
‘At the moment it costs £86,000 to keep one man in prison for one year. £86,000 of taxpayers' money.
‘Within 24 months of release, 67% of prisoners reoffend. I feel compelled to try and reduce the level of recidivism in our prisons. If we can reduce it by one person, that means one less victim.’
*names have been changed in this article to protect the identities of those involved.