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Changi prison life, as described by prisoners
THEATRE practitioner Edith Podesta was researching for another play when she chanced upon a letter that famous author Oscar Wilde wrote to Alfred Douglas while serving time in Reading Gaol in Berkshire, England. In the letter titled De Profundis (which means in Latin: From The Depths), Wilde speaks about his future reintegration into society:
"Many men on their release carry their prison about with them into the air, and hide it as a secret disgrace in their hearts, and at length, like poor poisoned things, creep into some hole and die. It is wretched that they should have to do so, and it is wrong, terribly wrong, of society that it should force them to do so ... I can claim on my side that if I realise what I have suffered, society should realise what it has inflicted on me; and that there should be no bitterness or hate on either side ..."
Wilde's words moved Podesta so much that she decided to create a prison drama to give voice to Singapore's "returning citizens", as she calls them.
The play titled Dark Room consists of word-for-word accounts of various ex-offenders she interviewed about their experiences in Changi Prison Complex.
It debuted in 2014 to critical praise and was nominated in three categories, including Best Director and Best Original Script, at the Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards.
Podesta, who used to teach drama at Lasalle College of the Arts, is bringing back Dark Room next month with expanded material for Esplanade's The Studios 2016 season.
The original version comprised first-person accounts by 10 male prisoners. But this new iteration will also include confessions of a female inmate, the parents of ex-offenders and others.
Podesta says: "No words have been changed from the original interview transcripts, because it's very important to me that the voices the audience hears are authentically individual ... A lot of ex-offenders didn't want to speak to me at first. But the people who did decide to speak to me were so eloquent. At times, their words were very painful. At other times, they were deeply philosophical."
Podesta, who hails from Australia, assembled the interviewees' responses in chronological order, so that the audience gets a sense of their personal journey within the correctional facilities' daily routine and regulations. Their accounts begin with their day of sentencing and end with their day of release. In between, they explore personal experiences such as the stripping away of their individual identities and the need to find peace within themselves.
Podesta adds: "There was also laughter, stories of friendship and, of course, hopeful encounters with rehabilitation. The challenge I faced in the end was my own, how to thank strangers who have deeply touched me, who have entrusted their stories to me, and how to stage their highly personal stories for a public audience."
Again and again, she found the extensive three-hour interviews she carried out with each ex-offender circling back to her own self-examination.
She explains: "I learnt a lot about myself, my own prejudices and misconceptions. I learnt to appreciate my freedom and the support of my loved ones. And I experienced how distinctive and far-reaching stigma and loneliness can be."
Dark Room will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from April 28 to May 1 at 8pm, with 3pm weekend matinees. Tickets at S$35 from Sistic
Highlights of Studios 2016
BESIDES Dark Room, there are three plays and two works-in-progress at Esplanade's The Studios 2016 season. We pick out the best:
Experimental theatre director Natalie Hennedige is one of the most exciting talents in Singapore theatre. Her latest work Ophelia stars the fine actress Jo Kukathas. It examines the tragedy of Ophelia, Shakespeare's heroine who drowns herself after Hamlet spurns her.
Runs from March 17-19
Veteran theatre practitioners Noorlinah Mohamed and Claire Wong devised this play in which each recalls her most intimate and revealing encounters with her mother. The results are sometimes funny, other times heartbreaking.
Runs from March 24-27
Dancer Joavien Ng and actress Jean Ng collaborate on this performance piece that examine the desires, paradoxes and extremities inherent in our dreams.
Runs from March 31 to April 2