In the bleak and anonymous back-room of a young offenders’ institute, its red plastic chairs reminiscent of an abandoned classroom, two people watch a tape of CCTV footage that we can’t see. Reputations are on the line, but even as the governor urges the man beside her to clarify what is happening on-screen – “to bring some unity to the messages coming out of this building” – it soon becomes clear that no amount of professional objectivity or press-pleasing spin will resolve this awful mess cleanly. Whilst courtroom sessions end, pangs of conscience do not, and the grey areas expand exponentially even as a line-up of security officers, social workers and ex-offenders attempt to answer the increasingly-redundant question: who is to blame?
In its simplest terms, social worker-turned-playwright Chris Thompson’s debut centres around an intimate and fatal embrace. Offering rare insight into the workings of the systems we may prefer to ignore, Carthage considers, without ever being carelessly condemnatory, how the restraining hold of two police officers (or perhaps the slackening grip of a neglectful mother) contribute to the undignified death of a troubled young offender. Whilst no-one would blame Thompson for simply bemoaning the sorry state of our prison and care services, he is tender, incisive and quietly hopeful in this examination of institutional failure and social responsibility.
Our first suspect (and indeed, there’s something of the court room in the traverse seating arrangement) is security guard, Marcus (Toby Wharton) a man shaken to the core when the implementation of his training becomes his crime, and a standard restraint procedure results in the death of his ward. Tommy Anderson (Jack McMullen)- a recalcitrant and seemingly irredeemable youth, born in prison to a teenage offender Ann (Claire-Louse Cordwell), is dead at fifteen as a result of asphyxiation.
As Ann and Tommy’s case histories entwine, we witness over a decade of terse exchanges between the figures who handle and mishandle the pairs’ lives with varying degrees of humanity. History repeats itself, honest phrases echo years later as hypocrisies – initially, we are kept at a safe distance, in the realm of face-saving accusations and defences, rather than raw emotion. But when Marcus and Ann sit down together for the first time, the circuit suddenly clicks into place, ready for the thousand volt shock: the long-awaited showdown between victim and villain, although, of course, you’ve no idea which of them is which.
Luckily, director Robert Hastie’s steady hand means the disorientating lack of moral certainty is conveyed with admirable precision, whilst Thompson is a bomb disposal expert talking us calmly through the terrifying tangle of wires. Carthage showcases human beings at their worst and best, and they’re often doing both simultaneously. Marcus first appears as frustratingly passive, with his rapidly weakening argument and useless pride, a wounded animal too wretched to even lick its wounds. But when we finally see him as he once was, a man who is genuinely good at his job, he is remarkable and painful to watch.
Lisa Palfrey is excellent as the social worker trying her hardest, acid-tongued and tenderly maternal, she calls Tommy ‘darling’ with a sincerity that aggrieves, given her ultimate inability to reach him. “I get paid to love you.” she half-jokes, and whilst we never doubt the veracity of that love, Thompson doesn’t let us forget the insurmountable distance between her and the people she is assigned to care for. Claire-Louise Cordwell fascinates as Tommy’s oft-incarcerated mother with a Jekyll and Hyde approach to parenting. Bereaved, she visibly shimmers with grief and fury, a bundle of knife points glittering in her blue eyes. In one nerve-jangling moment, furious beyond words, she drags her nails along the table top, an incensed feline retracting its claws because even the kill couldn’t satisfy her blood-lust. Jack McMullen, as Tommy, is another blazing star of rage, bravado and bewilderment – there’s even a kind of physical poetry to his violent outbursts, as he throws himself around like an earth-bound thing trying, and failing, to take flight.
Hastie’s pared-back production plays out with a growing momentum, as devastating as it is understated. By no means without hope, there’s a gritted-teeth kind of humour, as Thompson demonstrates such compassion for his characters, a sympathetic documenter of their vulnerabilities even as they try to disguise them.
The jumbled chronology lends Tommy a kind of tragic Shakespearean dignity – his presence always reminding us of his eventual absence, a young man unwittingly hauling his own death with him everywhere he goes, bent-double under the burden of his status as a burden, and as a criminal, “Do you know what he did?” is a repeated refrain from those who seem glad to be rid of him – and though we never know the offence that landed him in prison, it ceases to matter. Tommy’s death out-weighs his wasted life, but even when we do witness that event first-hand, there are no certainties – kindness or brutality, innocent or guilty, the sentence for all involved is to ‘live with it’.
Truly affecting without being manipulative, Carthage will stay with you for longer than you’d like it to, a testament to its striking honesty, and fitting remembrance for all those failed by the systems designed to protect them.