Tag Archives: Southbank

Writing from prison – an evening at Southbank

7 Nov

This evening, I went along to the Southbank Centre to read and listen to writing by offenders, secure patients and detainees.  I’ve always thought that the arts, and particularly writing, has a therapeutic, calming effect and when I read about this exhibition I was intrigued.  I didn’t know much about arts in prison apart from having some vague notion that while in prison, prisoners are sometimes encouraged to express themselves through art classes, library services etc.

I learnt a lot about the Koestler Trust, an organisation that promotes art by offenders, that hosted the event and it was fascinating to take a peek into the lives of those that often remain hidden.  Before the specific writing event I had booked to attend, I walked round The Strength and Vulnerability Bunker which showcased visual arts by offenders, patients and detainees.

A sculpture exhibiting the escapist qualities of art

A sculpture exhibiting the escapist qualities of art

There is something strange about knowing that the artist who has sculpted the model/ sketched the portrait/ painted the scene before you is behind bars.  For me, it made the atmosphere feel strangely charged with emotion and I found myself contemplating the sheer abnormality of imprisonment.

An Atheist Creed

An Atheist Creed

The art varied in all aspects and I’ve included some rough snapshots to give you an idea – some seemed  purposely crude, almost childlike in conveying a message whereas others were technically brilliant and it was clear to see that there is a huge amount of talent among such institutions.

You never really grow up

You never really grow up

The actual event was celebrating the works of writing that won the Koestler awards and a former prisoner, Clifford, whose poem was shortlisted in the prestigious Bridgport prize, read his two platinum-winning poems – my favourite entitled ‘Waiting to cross Croydon High Street in the rain.’  These poems are all published in the impressive magazine, ‘Not Shut Up’, that is distributed free of charge to prisons and other secure establishments around the UK.  Obviously some of the winning poems were read on behalf of the winners, many of whom are still behind bars, and there was a particularly moving part of the night when the mother of a winner (a prisoner with severe personality disorder) talked about how proud she was.  There was a talk with two successful former prisoner and I was particularly intrigued by Chris Wilson, who read a passage from his debut novel, Horse Latitudes, which had me thoroughly hooked.  A former drug addict, self harmer and teenage prostitute, he found his passion in prison – painting.  Since then, he was accepted into Chelsea College of Art and Design and alongside his painting, he writes and films documentaries.  I was pretty gobsmacked at his talents to be honest.

The event definitely confirmed my belief in the transformative powers of writing and I came out feeling inspired and rather humbled.  I questioned all my preconceptions about what it is to be an ‘offender’ as this evening smashed all the stereotypes I had in my mind of prisoners/ criminals/ detainees with one powerful sweep.


The World of Extreme Happiness

28 Oct

I went to watch the World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre, not knowing much about the plot apart from the fact that it is set in China.  When it began, my first thought was ‘hmm, I don’t know whether I like this.’  Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s dialogue is crude, brash and direct which I initially found a tad grating.  However, as the play progressed, this bothered me less and the harshness of the language seemed appropriate for the setting.

The story explores many issues in contemporary China and this usually is a bit of a turn-off for me.  We are first greeted by a scene where a woman gives birth to a daughter which miraculously survives despite being thrown in a rubbish bin.  The girl, named Sunny (and played by Katie Leung of Cho Chang fame), grows up to become a spirited and ambitious young girl.  Her mother died shortly after giving birth to Sunny’s younger brother (a hyperactive somersaulting creature) and her father is more concerned with his racing pigeons (a real life pigeon with better acting skills than some actors I’ve seen…)  She goes to the city where she works as a toilet cleaner for four years without getting a promotion.


Here, the theme of the rural poor vs the affluent urbanites pops up and I enjoyed the way this conflict was portrayed.  The discrimination towards the rural farmers and peasants is inescapable and the play looks at this through Sunny’s confused eyes.  She wants desperately to belong to the fast-paced city and her aspirations lead her into dark territory, from performing sexual favours to get a promotion to tricking her father into eating his beloved pigeons as a sign of her resentment towards him.  Another issue – the state vs business.. at times I thought that Cowhig was trying to pack a little too much into the play which came across as rather haphazard and confusing.

I found Sunny’s journey into the wacky world of self help fascinating and it was here that the brilliant set design really excelled itself. The self-help industry, which accounts for 20% of China’s book sales, seemed at first a comic diversion -many Chinese people comfort themselves with these supposed tools of empowerment.  But the truth is that no amount of self-empowerment or enlightenment is enough to beat the Chinese system, an insidiously repressive regime whose presence lurks everywhere.

The acting was good – Katie Leung’s performance was surprisingly watchable and Vera Chok, in particular, was excellent.  Each actor (apart from Leung) played a number of characters and their energy was palpable in a play that would otherwise perhaps feel a little long.  I was moved at the ending which I had not anticipated and came as something of a shock.  Behind the facade of ‘extreme happiness’ lies extreme darkness and it was these scenes that occurred in the denouement that I found most captivating.