If you‘ve ever wondered what goes on inside our prisons, a new production by Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is set to enlighten you. Set within Queensland's notorious Boggo Road Gaol in the 1970s and 1980s, Bogga has a strong political undercurrent that traces the fall of the Bjelke-Petersen government.
Even if you are too young to remember Queensland in the 1980s, Bogga's themes are still relevant today, says playwright Rob Pensalfini. The brand-new production has been pieced together using real stories and accounts of history, offering up a truly local piece of theatre.
The narrative unfolds using the words of former officers and inmates of Boggo Road, as well as oral histories collected by local historian Chris Dawson. To transport you back in time, this theatrical snapshot of history also features local music from the era and audio bulletins on jail riots from 4ZZZ, which has broadcast a radio show for prisoners for almost 40 years.
Though Bogga recounts daily life within the prison (and a standard day may include anything from riots to corruption, drug and sex scandals, murders and suicides), many of the stories are surprisingly relatable, adding an unexpected dose of humour to the production.
Pensalfini says that is partly because prisons are a distillation of society. To learn more about what inspired him to write this play and what we can all learn from it, we spoke with him ahead of the show’s premiere in November.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned in your research for this production?
Something that I had an inkling of from working (doing theatre) with prisoners, and in prisons before, but couldn't quite articulate: that, like any social institution, prisons reflect the values and systems of the society in which they are embedded. But that prisons, perhaps uniquely, magnify and amplify these – they are society in a pressure cooker.
Bogga reflects the values and struggles that were going on in broader Queensland society in the 1970s and 1980s – what were some of these issues?
Corruption and brutality. The idea that you create an orderly society by coming down hard on resistance and disagreement, and that the end justifies the means. That the rules are there to be bent or ignored if you have the power and the conviction that your cause is right. These were present in the government at the time, and they were really evident in the stories we collected of the prison.
Why do you think many of the stories in the show are relatable?
At first I thought these attitudes, while frightening were also rather juvenile, and that our society had outgrown them. Then came Campbell Newman and Donald Trump. We haven't outgrown these attitudes, we're just in denial of them. We've swept them under the rug.
Why did you want to make this production?
Because by sweeping these values and ideas under the rug, they don't disappear, but fester. We have perhaps been too quick to deny our connections to the Queensland of the Joh era, but we grew out of it, and in many ways we still reflect its values and its mechanisms of oppression.
What will Queenslanders take away from the show?
Hopefully questions rather than answers. Questions like:
- What does our treatment of those who transgress say about who we are as a society?
- How resilient is the human spirit, and what breaks it, and to what end?
- Does power always breed corruption?
And to remember that the measure of a society is how well it treats its least fortunate.
You can continue the conversation when Pensalfini appears for a Q&A session after the show on 16 November. He will also be joined by the cast, director and historian.
Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio at UQ
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