Why people do bad things
Yesterday morning, I went to Greenford High School in Southall in Middlesex to film a class of A-Level English literature students learning about The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I listened fascinated as they used the text to open up a discussion about the various reasons people commit crimes, debating the origin of the compulsion in some human beings to turn to evil.
One pupil, 17-year-old Tosin Omosebi, is so interested in the subject that she’s written her own play about it. She was inspired to begin writing when a friend was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder – and when she watched him suffer after failing to take his medication.
“There’s a lot of different reasons that people do bad things,” she told me, “And sometimes we have to look away from the law and look at them as a person and think, OK, I’m going to try to understand why you’ve done this… Because I think it’s something that’ll never have one definite answer and it’s something you can explore forever and always come up with different stuff for.”
Tosin’s play is called Re-Write and tells the story of two men who are convicted for murder, incarcerated in a secure mental hospital and about to have their lives ‘re-written’ by doctors.
Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, is impressed by the way it exploits the possibilities of theatre to challenge the audience.
“What Tosin does is she asks questions,” he told me, “Which is what I think the best plays do. The best plays don’t come up with answers, they ask us to look at things in a new way. And the play is witty, it’s dark, it’s not in any way pretending to be a real image of the way things are in secure hospitals but it really prods at us and asks us to think freshly about important issues.”
As winner of New Views, the National Theatre’s new writing competition, Re-write was performed last night by professional actors in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament. The hall may have seen its fair share of drama over the years (it was used for ceremonial occasions by Richard III, Henry VII and Elizabeth I and housed three of the most important law courts in Britain), but this is the first recorded instance of it being used to stage a play in its 900 year history.
The one-off staging took place as part of a collaboration between the National Theatre and Arts in Parliament, a programme of events bringing art, music, dance, theatre and poetry into Westminster over the summer of 2012. It offered Tosin a unique opportunity to show her work to an audience of MPs and members of the House of Lords – an opportunity she relished as one of her aims when writing the play was to make people think about the issues it explores and possibly provoke change.
“This is going to sound quite bad but I want them to be really uncomfortable,” she told me before the show, “There’s a few moments when I want them to really jump back and think, Ooh, I’m not a good person after all. So I hope when they walk out they’re a bit upset actually – that’d be good… Because that’s when you really dig deep when you look at yourself and think maybe you have to change.”
Speaking to members of the audience after the show, it was clear to me that Tosin succeeded on this front. Baroness Young of Hornsey told me, “Yes I did feel slightly uncomfortable, I felt challenged… And then – I’m trying not to give too much away – but the way that the characters behave does make you as a member of the audience think, oh OK, I might have thought in this way about that kind of person but I want to re-evaluate what I feel about this whole set of issues.”
MP Stephen Pound agreed: “What it’s made me re-examine is the role we have, we, the rest of society, the non-murderers amongst us, in treating those people who are… I actually visit a lot of constituents in prisons, a lot. And two or three I visit are actually in vulnerable prisoner units, VP Units or psychiatric blocks. I think I’m going to look at them in a different eye after this – I don’t think I can but look at them differently.”
Anyone else wishing to have their opinions challenged can see Re-write in the National Theatre’s pop-up workshop space; there are two shows today and tomorrow at 4.30 and 7.30. Submissions for next year’s New Views competition are now open.
As for Tosin, she’s hasn’t yet decided what she wants to do for a career. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, she is planning to go to university and study English Literature.
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