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Unlocking the causes of single cell madness

Disorder Contained, Shop Front Theatre, Coventry, until July 1

A theatrical examination of madness in prison and, specifically, solitary confinement, might not be everyone's idea of a good night out but Coventry's Talking Birds group certainly make this subject interesting.

Professor Hilary Marland and a team from Warwick and Dublin universities commissioned playwright Peter Cann to look at the 19th century idea of confining prisoners in their cells with little more than a Bible and a chamber pot for see how long it would take to change their ways.

Were they mad before they went in to prison? Or did they slip into madness after spending up to 18 months alone ahead of transportation to Australia. Or the relative comfort of a real asylum?

Either way the notion of confinement has continued into the 20th and 21st centuries with some prisoners today locked up for 23 out of 24 hours, although usually not in isolation.

The intimate Shop Front Theatre at the edge of City Arcade offers the perfect venue for this 50-minute-long production in the round.

A plain table represents the cell, 13 feet, by seven feet, by nine feet, the dimensions regularly repeated, and sung, by actors Jill Dowse, Teresa Jennings and Genevieve Say.

Without a blink they alternatively stand on and around this one prop, one minute prisoners, the next the prison doctor, schoolmaster and - best paid and most powerful of all - the chaplain.

With high levels of mental illness being reported in today's prisons, the academics backing this production have made Disorder Contained the last in a trilogy dramatizing their research into madness. The play moves to Belfast and Dublin in July.

Of the three 19th century prisoners portrayed on stage, one was transported, one died, and a third did reach asylum...of sorts.

Their stories are not real but based on typical records. For all anyone knows they could be spot on. As the novelist and historian Hilary Mantel has pointed out - there are no truths, only points of view.

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