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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Artistic director discusses incarceration, Shakespeare

Tom Magill, artistic director and founder of the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) gave a lecture sponsored by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies on Thursday afternoon; Magill was on campus to present at this week’s Shakespeare in Prisons conference.

ESC is located in Belfast, Northern Ireland and focuses on storytelling through drama and film as a cathartic form of expression, most notably for inmates.

“Basically, what [ESC] does is it empowers marginalized people to find their voice and tell their stories,” Magill said.

Magill was born in Loyalist North Belfast, where he grew up “Protestant and British” during a time of great and violent turmoil against the Irish Republicans.

“In North Belfast, your ability to inflict violence was a measure of your power,” Magill said. “‘Turn the other cheek’ my mother would whisper to me; ‘fight back’ my father would say, ashamed of his youngest son, beating me to bed with no supper. I was beaten at home for being a coward, for letting the family name down. I hated my name. I hated Belfast.”

When he was 19, Magill spent three years in prison for violence. It was during those three years that Magill reached his “turning point” by delivering a meal to an Irish inmate who was on a hunger strike.

“He told me to educate myself, to not waste my time — my life — in prison,” Magill said. “I listened to him. I took in every word. My enemy became my teacher, starving himself to death and yet he gave me good advice: ‘educate yourself, learn about your culture, be proud of who you are, don’t waste your life in here.’ His words challenged me and shook me to the core. I listened to my enemy, IRA [Irish Republican Army] volunteer Frank Stagg.”

Magill took the advice to heart.

“I started to write,” he said. “I realized being creative made me feel worthwhile. When I was being creative, I lost any desire for violence. But sharing my writing still feels vulnerable. We still think vulnerability is a weakness, but it’s not — it’s the most accurate measure of courage.”

In 1994, after being released from prison and studying theatre, he worked with 10 IRA prisoners to adapt Bobby Sands’s epic poem “The Crime of Castlereagh” into theatre — the prisoners were controversially given parole to perform publicly.

The poem the play is based on, which Sands wrote after he was in a holding center for terrorists, was so controversial that Magill lost his job.

“I was told — in no uncertain terms — to limit my theatre-making skills to short sketches about getting in, out or getting married,” Magill said. “There would be no more political drama. I told prison authorities I was not prepared to work under such circumstances.”

He directed “Mickey B,” a film adaptation of “Macbeth” in 2007. The film was shot in Maghaberry high-security prison and prisoners, including former Republican and Loyalist prisoners, made up the cast.

“We’re planning our next prison-Shakespeare project, ‘Prospero’s Prison,’ based on ‘The Tempest,’” Magill said. “I’ve chosen not to make the colonial theme central as I believe it will divide opinion. I’m looking for a theme to unite, and that theme is betrayal. Many of the people I’ve spoken to — on both sides of the divide — feel betrayed, so our take will focus on the misplaced trust that feeds the ambition that leads to a brother’s betrayal.”

Magill now works in forensic mental health, still encouraging people to share their traumatic stories with film, in addition to serving as the artistic director of ESC.

“It’s about having the opportunity to address their needs,” Magill said. “It’s about having the opportunity to be listened to and to have that voice, tease out and then to give them the choice about what they do in terms of being creative and externalizing what is hurting them. Hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people. That process between hurting and healing, that’s where the arts come in. We do that through expression.”