Doubting Thomas: When the Mask Slips
By Kevin Harrison
There is no doubt that as a society we are both fascinated and appalled by violent crime. Crime has spawned genres of writing, film and television and is vital to news coverage in our everyday lives. Violence has never been more visceral, more stylised, more visible and more normal to see on a page or screen. Current media is filled with fascinating portrayals of villains and anti-heroes. Never has it seemed so good to be bad. And as we sit as judge and jury, we are constantly asked to weigh up how we measure redemption. Can theatre by non-actors with experience of criminal justice bring us some answers?
So sat blinking in the darkness in a lecture theatre in Summerhall in Edinburgh at this year’s Fringe Festival, I wondered what story of redemption we would be shown in ‘Doubting Thomas’ devised and directed by Jeremy Weller of the Grassmarket Project. Jeremy has been one of Artlink Central’s three development artists for 'Freedom to Create' three years at HMP and YOI Cornton Vale and works with non-actors to create theatre that draws on the real lives of the people he works with, from young people in extremely deprived neighbourhoods to women in custody.
Jeremy spent his three years supporting women to improvise, devise and write from their own experiences. The work always acknowledged and made visible his own place within the drama and the impact of the outsider coming into the environment of the prison. ‘Doubting Thomas’ uses the same device to great effect as Grassmarket associate theatre director, Mark Traynor, here playing the role of theatre director, engages the brooding and silent Thomas ’Tosh’ McCrudden in a process of telling his own story.
Most of the actors here are acknowledged as having life experience of the criminal justice system, and the strong performances are clearly rooted in the truth of their own lives. Tosh is played by Thomas McCrudden himself and the commitment and conviction of the man is mesmerising. It is only later on that the extent to which violence is a driving force in his life is revealed, but the threat is there from the very first moment on the stage, palpable.
The performance feels like a ticking bomb, although even as we see Tosh inhabit his past and present, the contradictions keep falling out of his words, his actions. One moment he can be sympathetic and compassionate, the next cold and clinical, and anything in-between. He calls himself a ‘lost boy’ and he calls himself a ‘monster’, but there is no black and white here, this is a complex, complicated man and nuanced performance, with moments of humour, darkness and hope shading the characters, images and narratives he shares with us.
The world and stage he lives in is so confined, confined long before he reaches prison and yet the power of this work is its reach. As an audience we are provoked and challenged. When he bristles with anger and threat, it is laced with echoes of his past lived experiences and the violence erupts in a way that feels far more real than the visuals of any blood spattered television show. When he confronts the director with his need to create visual impact, the terror he creates is ours. There is a lot of blame to share here and by the end we are ready to share it with him.
This is not a production that shines with glossy pretension. The mask slips off quickly and these actors are not pretending. Palpable and honest, this may be a story of hope, but there are no easy answers or quick transformation. Thisbloody redemption is slow and filled with pacing, fear and hard work and one senses that ‘Doubting Thomas’ is part of a long journey of truth and reconciliation for Tosh as he meets his audience in the eyes and seeks change, not just for himself but for wider society.
Creating opportunities for ‘non-actors’ to devise, write, create and inhabit theatre and performance is a very challenging and skilled area of practice. Jeremy makes ownership very clear in his work and practice and these works and projects hang on relationships and trust. That trust is built up slowly over long periods of time and only through commitment by those involved. The routes of progression are often uncharted, opportunistic and project limited.
There is a real need for ongoing support and consistency. Institutions can often become very excited to have ex-offenders return to ‘give back’ and some want to and do. Organisations such as Citizen’s Theatre offer some of those mechanisms for support but integrating these performers into mainstream opportunities is not usually or immediately on offer, nor are routes to professional practice and support for performance and community arts practice visible widely.
Jeremy's work with women on the Freedom to Create through a friday night theatre group established a strong case for ongoing expressive opportunities for women in criminal justice and made visible some talented writing. One women writes of her working relationship with Jeremy:
Extract from ‘An Artist and An Inmate’
“If I had the confidence I have now because of our work, then to be able to
speak out loud in front of people would have been amazing. Working with you hasn’t just been about having a laugh with drama, it’s been teaching me to
bring out bits of my personality that I felt I needed to hide.
It’s taught me not to judge other people when they’re telling you something they have hidden for years, because you know what it is like to be in their position. I’m not sure what this is for, all the work that we’ve done together…at the end of
the day, I’m just one prisoner with many different views and bloody opinions... I am not sure if any of this will ever be heard or even whether that matters…
but, I loved writing with you and even now, doing this just speaking into that camera…its crazy…I have not thanked you, but I do thank you and am
grateful to you for letting me say my truth…”
Recently a number of artists and performers who discovered or started to develop their talent in custody, have joined the Scottish Prison Arts Network where they express the benefits of these projects in helping them with successful transitions into learning, improving their wellbeing or aspirations, with some even saying it aids in keeping them out of custody. Now they want to use these talents to help inspire other people. The challenge they face as ‘non-actors’, successfully in the case of ‘Doubting Thomas’ is that their training, unlike other traditionally educated creative artists, is in front of their audience, it’s on the job.