Reviewer: Ciara L. Murphy
What do we really know about the Irish prison system? And, do we even care what goes on? These two questions sit at the forefront of The Examination, a performance about the Irish prison system. Using a blend of biography and socially engaged performance practice, Brokentalkers present a challenging task to their audience: to try to have empathy for those in society that we are systematically taught to deride, denigrate, and ultimately avoid.
The set, designed by Ger Clancy, expertly adds to the surrealism of the situation of prisoners and serves as a convincing frame for the performance itself. There is a sense of process, of inescapability, and inevitability. Combined with jarring animation from Gareth Gowran and innovative sound by Denis Clohessy The Examination has a consistent and evocative aesthetic.
The production is advertised as an exploration of the theme of healthcare in the Irish prison system. In actual fact, this is not what the production does at all and this is both to its detriment and to its success in places. Working in its favour is the awkward tension that Gary Keegan creates through his dismaying treatment of ex-prisoner and co-performer Willie White. It’s a clever tactic that marks out the injustices of an inhuman system very clearly.
White has ‘that look’ as Keegan points out, and the audience is uncomfortably confronted by the fact that yes, he does. We all know exactly what Keegan means. This is a moment of shared complicity and it places the audience as an active participant in a system which casts young working-class men and women as ‘other’. All it takes is one look and there it is… the judgement.
White walks a tightrope of representation in The Examination. He is representing his own story and the many personal stories of other prisoners collected throughout the research and creative process. White carries this performative load expertly and is powerful and engaging. The audience are all in. We want to know more, but we are left wanting. Despite compelling and powerful performances, The Examination feels underdeveloped in places.
The final section of the production swerves inexplicably away from its core aim. Here the audience are asked to make a judgement call based on Keegan’s own personal experience of violence and The Examination becomes more about reifying the sense of ‘otherness’ that White is working hard to dismantle than providing a space to challenge it. There is a sense that the performance loses its way around the half-way mark.
It is a disappointing end to a performance that is at times challenging, fresh, and timely.
Runs until 3 March 2019 | Image: Contributed