Ruth Fleming is a marketing intern at the Educational Shakespeare Company.
Belfast-based film charity, the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) have produced the first ever feature film to be made by and with prisoners in a maximum-security prison anywhere in the world.
Over the course of two years they worked alongside non-conforming life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maghaberry Prison to produce the film Mickey B, a ground-breaking and award-winning modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Prisoners and prison staff were involved at practically every level – from writing, staging and acting through to the production of the film. The sheer magnitude of this project is not to be underestimated, for as Sam, who played Duncan in the film, said “what was being proposed was to make a feature film with murderers playing murderers in a maximum security, category A jail.”
In Mickey B, the storyline of Macbeth has been cleverly reworked and adapted to resonate with contemporary society and with the culture of imprisonment in particular. The central themes of Shakespeare’s bleak tragedy – of greed and violence, betrayal and revenge, guilt and madness – have all been preserved and brought vividly to life in Burnam jail, a fictional private prison, where the prisoners control the wings and violence and drug-dealing are the order of the day.
The film has been controversial since the get go. People raised the issue of victims’ rights, believing that allowing these men to participate in a feature film was being unfair to their victims. A tabloid national paper ran the story under the heading “Cons Make Sicko Movie.” Even the prison authorities believed it would be impossible to make a film with the ‘baddest boys in the jail.’
However, taking part in the production of Mickey B has had a major positive impact on the participants. As well as gaining, for many, their first ever qualification in Active Citizenship , prisoners’ regime status improved for the better, their security classifications dropped, less prisoners committed chargeable offences (during filming) and the number of prisoners attending education for the first time increased.
ESC chose to adapt Macbeth – which eventually became Mickey B – for a number of reasons, a key one being that the ultimate moral of Macbeth is that crime does not pay. It is a play about violence and the repercussions of violence. Taking part in the film enabled non-conforming life-sentence prisoners to act out and understand the implications of their violent crimes. Using the lens of fiction provided them with a stepping-stone towards examining and understanding their own motivations and relationships with violence.
Mickey B has won much critical acclaim. Kenneth Branagh labelled it an “important work that speaks eloquently,” and Stephen Rea recognised it as “chilling…fantastic work. Ken Loach described it as “a strong and imaginatively conceived film…the actors are remarkable and the Northern Irish voices are very powerful.”
In 2008 Mickey B won one of the top accolades at the UK’s Arthur Koestler awards for Arts in Prisons – the Roger Graef Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film. Yet Mickey B is so much more than just an impressive prison arts production, and deserves to be recognised and judged on the grounds of its significant artistic merits. As Jamie Bennett, the Governor of HMP Morton Hall articulates, “it is a film that deserves to be judged for what it is rather than who made it and in what circumstances.”
However, until now this has not been possible. Fearing controversy and more media backlash, the NI Prison Service placed the film under a three-year restriction order which expires in November 2009. ESC had to agree not to publicly screen or sell the film in the UK or Ireland for three years after its completion.
You can read the reviews of Mickey B at ESC’s website, www.esc-film.com and order NTSC and PAL DVD copies of the film. UK and Ireland supporters will have to wait a little longer, but the rest of the world can order right now by clicking here.