In the Fall 2011 special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly on Shakespeare and performance, Ramona Wray wrote about an adaptation of Macbeth written and performed by prisoners in Belfast’s Maghaberry Prison. Directed by Tom Magill and produced by the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC), Mickey B is an unusual film in that its main focus is on the performance of the adaptation, not the process leading up to it. Mickey B tells the story of a privately run prison controlled by gangs of prisoners. Duncan is the drug baron of one prison wing, and Mickey B murders him at the instigation of Ladyboy and the prophecies of a trio of bookies. Duffer’s wife and children are killed at home on Mickey B’s orders from inside the prison; after an attack on himself and his son, Banknote flees to the safety of another wing, where he joins with Malcolm and the prison staff to kill Mickey B. The film consists of the entirety of this adaptation; supplementary materials on the DVD include documentaries about the prisoners and the film’s making. (The trailer for Mickey B can be seen below; more clips from the ESC’s work can be found on their vimeo page and on their website.
In this brief conversation, I asked Tom Magill about the localization of Mickey B and its reception beyond Northern Ireland.
Sarah Werner: Mickey B is an adaptation that puts Macbeth in decidedly local terms, starting with its setting in a Northern Ireland prison and its echoes of the Troubles.
Tom Magill: The language is colloquial and rooted in the culture of Belfast prison slang. The language is sharp and sparse; some people have said “rich and poetic.” Working with Michael Bogdanov taught me that Shakespeare requires updating and translating to be meaningful and relevant to an audience today. I wanted to see if Shakespeare was relevant to a contemporary prison culture. My conclusion after making Mickey B is a resounding yes, Shakespeare is relevant to a prison culture today. For me, the Prison has replaced the Tavern—when I think of Falstaff today, I think of him in prison. That’s why I think there is so much relevancy and scope in Prison Shakespeare—Macbeth is a murderer, Scotland is a fortress, it fits in a prison culture.
The characters in the film have come through the conflict and now they are in a post-ceasefire society. New allegiances are being formed, new enemies are on the horizon. The recent influx of East European labour has spawned a new battle with “The Cossacks” in a drugs turf war. Former Republican and Loyalist adversaries are re-forming into one crew to resist the new “foreign” enemy.
Sarah Werner: But the film has been shown in international festivals, most recently at the University of Guelph conference “Outerspeares: Transcultural / Transmedia Adaptations of Shakespeare,” where you were also a keynote speaker. How has reception of the film been different outside of Northern Ireland?
Tom Magill: In Canada the film had a great reception, stirred a lot of interest re future publications, collaborations, and return visits to Guelph. The Canadians got Mickey B. Outside Northern Ireland the film screens differently. People abroad often remark upon the distinctive accents of the prisoners and how different they are to the representations that appear in films about Northern Ireland’s conflict. Audiences abroad don’t have the “cultural capital” to read the films as a local audience would. This means they often miss the parallels in the film—e.g. the assassination of MacDuff’s family draws heavily upon the assassination of the wife of Irish National Liberation Army leader Dominic McGlinchey, Mary McGlinchey, bathing her two children at home. (See this website for further details.)
I think that getting the prison context to fit the story of Macbeth and then being true to the local prison culture has given us a global audience. I have found that people globally are interested in the conflict in Ireland, particularly if they have an experience of conflict within their own society. The film had a very warm reception in both Korea and Israel, where it played with Korean and Hebrew subtitles. The film has also been translated into German and French, and is currently undergoing a Portuguese translation. I think there is something of real interest in the film to colonial cultures or cultures that have been colonised.
At a recent screening in Northern Ireland, a person remarked about how “strange and uncomfortable it was hearing those voices [of prisoners] speaking [Shakespeare’s] words.” So I think Mickey B challenges people here in Ireland, too. Especially in relation to this “underclass” of prisoners doing Shakespeare—the establishment and cultural icon of the English-speaking world. In this context, Mickey B speaks as a counterhegemonic discourse privileging and accrediting the subaltern voice.
And the film has paid the price for that radical positioning. Although Mickey B was completed in 2007, the Northern Ireland Office, through the Northern Ireland Prison Service, restricted the film being shown or distributed within the UK and Republic of Ireland without their prior consent for three years after its completion. Their legitimate fear was the reaction of local victims and victim’s groups. ESC suggested a screening specifically for these groups to address the concerns. But the suggestion was never taken up.
ESC had to agree to these terms or else the Northern Ireland Prison Service would not sign off on the Location Agreement, that is, their agreement to let us film in their location, a maximum security prison. We knew how ridiculous it would be if we refused to sign the three-year restriction and went to court to ask a judge if he agreed with us, that they had in fact, given us permission to film in their maximum security prison with their most recalcitrant prisoners. But we signed in good faith because we wanted to have good relations with the prison staff and go on to make another film in the prison.
What we have learned since, is that the three-year restriction means the film is not eligible for entry at many film festivals where the criteria for selection states that the film entry must have been completed within the last twelve months. For ESC, Mickey B was an accredited arts educational project, enabling violent prisoners to understand their previous motivations through an updated version of the Macbeth story; where ruthless ambition ends in destruction. However, for some staff in the Northern Ireland prison service, we were simply “turning murderers into movie stars.”
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/9728406 w=400&h=225]
Still shots from Mickey B graciously provided by Tom Magill.
Tom Magill cofounded and directs the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC). He currently writes and directs ESC’s films and runs workshops and courses, encouraging people to explore their own stories through the medium of film. He is a specialist in Forum theatre, created by Nobel Prize nominee Augusto Boal, and is Boal’s representative in Northern Ireland. Magill’s ambition is to continue using his own life experience to inspire others to transform their lives by unlocking their creativity.