Summerhall – Main Hall
Lights buzz, an upbeat soundtrack reverberates and workers move cardboard boxes around a warehouse. Occasionally a prison siren interrupts the action and darkness falls before the routine starts up again. And so the performance of Woodhill begins.
Woodhill is a men’s high security prison and young offender institution in Milton Keynes. It is also where 18 self-inflicted prisoner deaths took place between 2013 and 2016, prompting several inquests brought by the grieving families. Suspicious deaths have continued to occur, causing Woodhill to have the dubious honour of the institution with the most inmate fatalities across the prison system.
In this performance verbatim testimony from grieving families, prison warders, mental health workers and legal professionals plays over loudspeakers as four dancers bend and move to a repetitive grinding beat, pausing as names are announced and rose petals are thrown in the air. Each name is that of a man who has died at Woodhill. Many died at their own hand having clearly signalled mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. Some died at the hands of others. Many were incarcerated for minor issues, others had educational or learning difficulties.
The heart and soul of the grieving bereaved are poured into this piece and it is a very cynical person indeed who is not moved by it. Families testify to the lack of care their loved ones received, legal professionals attest to the inadequacy of the prison system, government advisors testify to the ignored advice that they have given to politicians. 300 souls are each incarcerated in a tiny cell, with only a tiny amount of light high up, designed at a time when it was expected you would look to God and heaven for inspiration and forgiveness. The boxes that the dancers move across the stage represent the way their dead relatives have been reduced to boxed possessions after death.
Woodhill is an extraordinary account of a system that is woefully inadequate for purpose. And a system that is increasingly run by private firms where profit is the aim of the game, rather than the rehabilitation of offenders. It also holds to account the systemic reduction of social funding, to the extent that young men end up in prison because no one else knows what to do with them. They die, or deliberately reoffend because they are not equipped to operate in the world outside. The performance is perhaps a touch long, but structurally this piece has rightly been designed to allow the visibility of all the voices. And I hope it continues to get the visibility it deserves
Written and directed by Matt Woodhead
Produced by: LUNG in Association with The North Wall
Woodhill plays at Summerhall for EdFringe until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.