SEVENTEEN years ago writer and actor Steve Lambert set up his theatre company Badac to shine a light on human rights violations around the world.
Badac has since established a reputation for being one of the country’s most controversial and confrontational theatre companies with a series of plays that highlight general or specific human rights violations.
Its latest play, their 12th original production, is about the use and effects of solitary confinement. Taking a no holds barred look at the consequences on the prisoner of prolonged isolation, The Box features a man, alone in a cage and shows what his incarceration does to him. It is currently on a small tour and makes its London debut at Draper Hall in Southwark on January 13 and 14.
In a chat ahead of the show’s dates in the capital, Steve tells me it follows the journey of one prisoner struggling to survive the punishment of segregation as well as the effects it has on him of being so confined such as suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and psychosis.
A parallel story, giving an insight into an abusive background, gives the audience an understanding of the torment of a previous life, experiences that combined with the plunge into the physical, psychological and emotional consequences of isolation, can only lead to an intensely violent and destructive conclusion.
“When I set up the company about 17 years ago I wanted to do stuff about human rights,” he says.
“Choosing the subject matter of the plays we stage is always a bit random. I generally read something in a book or in a paper, watch something on TV such as a documentary or read something on a website and it sets something off in my mind.
“This project happened after I came across a documentary about solitary confinement in Maine in America where a prison governor was trying to reduce the use of it because he felt it didn’t work as a punishment.
“It got me thinking about how one person could be so cruel as to lock another up to spend hours, days, weeks or months on end on their own, the effect of being imprisoned in isolation and what it must do to a person’s mental health.”
The seed of the idea having been formed, Steve says he then set about researching the issue. To help him he read books and articles and met, talked to many people including an assistant governor of a prison in the West Midlands as well as drawing on the testimonies of prisoners.
He also consulted world-renowned expert on the effects of solitary confinement, Doctor Sharon Shalev, and drew on the experiences of Palestinian poet Ghazi Hussein, now living in exile in Scotland. As a political prisoner in Syria, Ghazi says he experienced the inhumanity and physical and mental effects of segregation with three months in a room with no light.
“It all developed from these conversations and the more I delved into the issue the more I wanted people to know about how it effects prisoners, specifically in terms of their mental health and how it doesn’t work,” says Steve.
“It took about five months or so to write once I’d done all the research and then to get it to the stage and the tour took a bit longer. I didn’t want to make it country specific because this happens in prisons all over the world - although obviously we hear more about places such as Guantanamo Bay and stories of prisoners here in the UK.
“Researching it was a fascinating process though. It showed up so many interesting aspects of solitary confinement. European countries use it as a tool to punish prisoners quite a lot - I found that Holland for example doesn’t have the same level of regulation as we do here which was a surprise.
“Some prisoners are just kept in a cell with no human contact for hours on end but some are in darkened or windowless rooms and then of course there are instances of sexual abuse and the length of time people are kept in solitary confinement. I thought maybe it would only be for a week but the reality is that it can be months or years.
“I also found that despite the justifications for the practice - such as reducing levels of crime, violence, attacks on guards and gang activity in prisons, it doesn’t work as a punishment. In fact it can make things worse because when prisoners come out they are more likely to re-offend.
“But wherever it happens and for however long, the effects are the same - the dehumanising of an individual - and so I wanted to give audiences an understanding of the cruelty and dangers of solitary confinement as a tool to punish someone. The use of it is wrong and the effect it has on an individual is wrong.
“Essentially, it’s a cry for help for all the many prisoners who have and continue to suffer the inhumanity, torture and despair of solitary confinement.”
And Steve is unapologetic when it comes to the staging of the show, in which he plays the prisoner, and that audiences may very well feel uncomfortable watching it unfold.
“The shows we put on are always visceral and immersive and this will be the same,” he says. “I want audiences to see and understand the level of suffering that happens. And when they’ve seen the show I want them to think about what they’ve seen and heard, to talk about the story and the themes within it afterwards in the bar or when they get home.
“I don’t want to make it comfortable for them and the concept of staging a show in a traditional setting or manner doesn’t appeal to me.
“The subject matter in The Box demands that you do something different though. I’m giving people an insight into the daily realities for those prisoners and a sense of what happens to them and what they go through and it’s uncomfortable.
“So the audience stands around a cage which I’m in so it’s very close and there is nowhere to hide. It’s all about a shared experience. It’s full on and in your face stuff!
“However the only person who really knows what the prisoner has gone through is someone who’s lived through that experience.
“Ultimately I hope that it may spark an idea in those who come and see it. It’s about engaging with people rather than asking them to change the world.
“We do a lot of work with schools and universities where we go in and talk to the young people about helping others, getting involved in politics or local campaigns and not believing everything you read and see.
“I do see more interest in this - there is less apathy now which is great and people are more willing to challenge things rather than be spoon fed ideas.”
The London dates will take place at Draper Hall which Steve says is the perfect location to stage the show as it’s small and intimate.
“When we are staging shows we always look for places which fit the piece and Draper Hall is perfect,” he says.
“But we also wanted people to come who don’t go to the theatre that often or at all - so being right in the middle of an estate is perfect as you you have an audience on your doorstep.
“Draper Hall is a great little space that does lots of artistic stuff for people on the estate generally so I’m looking forward to it.”
The Box is on at Draper Hall, Elephant and Castle, on January 13 and 14. Tickets cost £12. visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-box-by-badac-company-london-debut-tickets-28639499514?aff=erelexpmlt for full listings.