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The Shawshank Redemption

by on 31 January 2023

Hope Reigns Eternal

The Shawshank Redemption

by Stephen King, adapted by Owen O’Neil and Dave Johns

Bill Kenwright at Richmond Theatre until 4th February, then on tour until 5th May

Review by Mark Aspen

Agony can be short and excruciating, or long and drawn out, like grief.  But when the agony is extended over decades and decades, it effect is hard to comprehend.  The long term loss of freedom is one such agony, and is the subject of the play, The Shawshank Redemption.  Stephen King’s 1984 short novel is perhaps best known from Frank Darabont’s highly acclaimed film, made some twelve years later.  However, this stage version brings out the claustrophobic horror of incarceration with stinging sharpness.

Director David Esbjornson has sculpted The Shawshank Redemption as a very uncomfortable play to watch, as it is meant to be.  Grit your teeth, though, through the harrowing and raw early scenes, and you are rewarded with a thoughtful study of its powerful themes, the integrity of Andy, unjustly sentenced to two life sentences, and the hope of Red, the long-term prison “fixer”, who bond as friends.  The mutual support of their unlikely friendship gives them the resilience to find coping mechanisms for the interminable agony of their captivity.

The grimness of designer Gary McCann’s foreboding set underlines the predicament of the prisoners.  It is all grey concrete stanchions and peeling hard walls, regularly punctuated by caged bulkhead lights.  Armed guards patrol the surrounding galleries and landings.  This is the Shawshank State Penitentiary, somewhere in the US state of Maine.  The threatening atmosphere is accentuated by Chris Davey’s lighting, while Andy Graham’s soundscape of menace opens as the play goes up.  The ear-shattering sound of heavy chains, bolts and shackles makes an incontestable point.

This is a long-term prison, and the play itself covers a period roughly from 1950 to the 1970’s with much the same inmates, many of whom are as brutish as their guards.  Guards and prisoner maintain their top-dog positions by means of intimation, humiliation and brutalisation.

This soulless hell-hole is where Andy Dufresne finds himself after being convicted on circumstantial evidence of killing his wife and her lover.   Dufresne was a successful and well-to-do banker, who, although he knew of his wife’s infidelity, resolutely proclaims his innocence.   He gradually becomes good friends with Ellis “Red” Redding, who many years earlier really did kill his wife and her lover.  Red has found a niche in prison for his ability to smuggle in contraband items. Red acts as Dufresne’s guide in the earlier part of his incarnation.  Red warns of the motivation behind the top-dog positioning as “status, violence and power”.

But the strong-willed Dufresne has already fallen foul in this respect of both the guards and of a particularly nasty faction of the inmates, “the Sisters”.  He suffers a clubbing from the former and a sickeningly vicious homosexual rape by the later.  These attacks are explicitly acted out on stage, as are a further homosexual assault and its consequent serious beating that results in Dufresne being hospitalised in the prison infirmary.  Credit for this graphic realism goes to fight director Alison de Burgh.

Joe Absolom completely inhabits the role of Andy Dufresne as a man who knows his own self-worth, who will not be compromised in his beliefs or in the truth of his innocence and who has an unbending sense of honour.    He is played as a man whom you cannot help but admire of his obdurate bravery, verging on the foolhardy. 

In contrast Ellis Redding, “Red”, is totally pragmatic, or as pragmatic as you can be under the circumstances.  Ben Onwukwe is outstanding in the role, depicting him as laid back yet alive in the animal cunning which helps him survive.  Hope may spring eternal in his breast, but, as he says, “I’m getting sick of the word ‘hope’”. 

These two actors area consummate team with an interaction that is convincingly real.  Their characters have much to contend with.

On one side, the law has placed them in the hands of the prison staff, who are sadistic, self-serving and unscrupulous.  Corruption runs through from top to bottom.  Warren Stammas as the prison governor epitomises this corruption.  (Note the nomenclature: in US prisons, the governor is the warden and the wardens are called guards: tom-are-toe or Tom-ate-o.)   Stammas purports to be a Christian, yet he uses his “faith” as another stick to beat the prisoners, whilst all the time committing tax and other frauds in his on-the-side businesses.  Mark Heenehan makes a remarkable Stammas, with a body language that shouts.  Supercilious eyebrows, splayed legs say I’m in charge and his ram-rod posture adds … and unchallengable.  

If Stammas sadism is psychological, the sadism of the Captain of the Guard, Bryan Hadley is wholly physical.  His bone-breaking nightstick is never underutilised, and he can always call of his rifle-toting subordinate guard Entwhistle (Owen Oldroyd).  Joe Reisig gives a strong (in all senses of the word) performance as the strong-arm bullet-headed Hadley, who is not above the odd tax fiddle.  The fiscal weakness of the staff gives Dufresne the way in the long term to exploit his accountancy knowledge to feed them the rope for their metaphorical hanging.

On the other side, there is the dangerous feral pack of The Sisters, a psychopathic pair with nothing to lose.  Their soubriquet ironically belies their hardness.  The leader of the pack is Bogs Diamond, mightily played by Jay Marsh, and convincingly so.  All rippling muscle, here is someone you would not want to meet in a dark alley (or a light one!).  His lieutenant is Rooster played with gimlet incision by the wiry Leigh Jones.  If Bogs is a panther, Rooster is a hyena.  Even his mocking laugh is chilling.

Of the dozen-strong all-male cast, each plays his character as a clearly defined individual and each character is finely delineated.  The portraits are true to a life we hope we never have to lead; some are almost too shudder-inducing real.

Jules Brown plays the sad-eyed Rico, his a tragic story of loss, as a man whose religious faith is as strong as Stamass’ faith is false, albeit Rico’s is a faith that is tested to its limits.  Kenneth Jay paints a poignant picture of the elderly Brooksie, the trustee who acts as the prisoners’ librarian.  When he is finally given parole after nearly seven decades in gaol, he is so institutionalised that he fears life “outside”, with tragic results.  Jay’s is a touching depiction. 

Tommy Williams is a newcomer to the prison and becomes the fall guy in Stammas’ and Hadley’s yet unpunished crimes.  Their metaphoric rope given by Dufresne, becomes literal for the hapless Williams.  Coulter Dittman is excellent in this part, with wide-eyed innocence, in spite of his young life of crime.  He is gutsy though in confronting the Sisters, and after Dufresne coaches him to pass his high-school level exams, he remains loyal to his mentor and falls prey to his tormentors. 

Completing the strong cast, Kieran Garland, as the gambler Dawkins and Samarge Hamilton as the keen-to-please Kelly, lend rock-solid support to the exceptional acting.

Although the first half appears at first to give one-dimensional images of the characters, it is to the considerable credit of the writing, directing and acting that these characters develop into fully complex three-dimensional people that you can feel for, or be repulsed by, or both. By the second half we know these characters well.

When Dufresne literally carves out his own freedom, the sense of elation extends palpably into the audience.  His escape is the painstaking work of patient decades, the fruits of his hobby as a geologist and a monument to his own determination.  The icing on the rock cake, the come-uppance of Stammas and Hadley, adds to the elation. 

The final scene when the fugitive Dufresne is re-united with parole-jumping Red in their Mexican fishing village retreat is an act of triumph, and the coda to the action, the words of Red as narrator, becomes pure poetry.

Red occasionally breaks the fourth wall in the theatre to become the narrator in the unfolding story, a mechanism used in King’s source novella.  His axiom on the motivation of the characters we meet, of status, violence and power, perhaps sums up the locus of The Shawshank Redemption.

The pursuit of status, violence and power is inimical to freedom and it is the priceless value of freedom that is the overarching message of this powerful, uncomfortable, compelling play.

Mark Aspen, January 2023

Photography by Jack Merriman

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