The title of Sam Bailey’s play, Shook, doesn’t give much about it away. As you enter the space, though, it’s immediately clear that what’s about to go down happens in a prison. The room itself is pretty nondescript – there’s a bright red panic button, a couple of imposing CCTV cameras affixed to mouldy magnolia coloured walls, and a grey floor on which stacks of the sort chairs and tables you might find in an inner-city state school clutter the perimeter. They’re covered in graffiti – scrappily written accusations of noncery, cuntism, and a telephone number to call if you want a blow job.
The thing that sets the scene, though, is that door. It has an unmistakable aesthetic – sheets of galvanised metal held together with rows and rows of rusty rivets. It’s the sort of door that is designed to intimidate; to withstand great force; to be impenetrable. This door looks like incarceration. Jasmine Swan’s set design is configured to make the audience more than just passive voyeurs, outsiders looking in; they’re active participants, so close to the stage that some of them are virtually on it – invited to share in the most intimate of moments. Three boys – Riyad, Jonjo and Cain – on the precipice of not only manhood but fatherhood, too, in all their boyish vulnerability.
At the back end of the room, stuck to a whiteboard with magnets are three pieces of paper that display various platitudes of positivity related to self development. The text on one of them stands out: empathy helps people to feel understood. The font is barely legible from the back row, and yet this piece of paper is the most important prop in the play. For Bailey’s Papatango Prize-winning debut is all about empathy. It’s about interrogating society’s – and by extension our – relationship to it. Do criminals deserve our empathy? What if these criminals are children – are we more or less likely to feel empathy for them? And if these child criminals are the violent sort, what then? Do they deserve less empathy in that case? Or more? Who, exactly, deserves our empathy?
Bailey’s script makes a strong case for why these kids deserve it. His writing extracts the multidumensional human from the binary judgement that comes with prejudice and ignorance. Yes, these are young people who have committed crimes that landed them behind bars. But how can you not recognise the complexity of these lives when Riyad comes bounding into the room all coiled up like he’s ready for a fight, only to launch into a frustrated monologue about how astrology is getting in the way of his relationship with his girlfriend – ‘what’s Jupiter gotta do with me being with my girl, innit?’, he sulks. Or when Jonjo asks the female workshop facilitator who has been teaching them to care for their babies for a cuddle in a voice so small you know it’s because he is scared to be heard because being heard means being rejected, again. Or when Cain bursts in all full of tough-guy-top-of-the-prison-
The most effective kind of political theatre is the kind that stealthily creeps into your consciousness, like a crush on a person you never before thought could be your type. The source of many a tangential thought, it announces itself with gentle provocations that lead profound revelations. Bailey’s play does not explicitly tell you that the criminal age of responsibility in the UK is currently set at 10 years old, but it does make you wonder why there are children who are locked up; it doesn’t spell out that close to half of all young offenders reoffend upon release but it does make you wonder how come some of these children think of prison as their ‘home’; it doesn’t mention the proven link between childhood abuse and neglect, and later criminal behaviour but it does make you realise that some children do not receive love. That’s political theatre at its finest.
Shook is on at the Southwark Playhouse till 23rd November. More info here.