Most women who are sent to prison shouldn’t be there, says the writer of a hard-hitting new play.
Vivienne Franzmann thinks it makes no sense from a humane or economic perspective to lock women away without helping them, only for them to re-offend.
Her new play Pests, which comes to Birmingham Rep next week, features two sisters who have spent time in prison.
They have been in care and they struggle with heroin addiction, childhood sexual abuse, mental illness and poverty.
Vivienne was commissioned to write the play by Clean Break theatre company, which works with women who have been in prison.
She spent weeks in six jails, holding workshops and talking to the inmates about their experiences.
“You can’t write about prison if you haven’t been there, because it’s such an alien world,” says Vivienne, a former drama teacher.
“When I arrived at the first prison in Cheshire, I was really shocked.
“It became obvious pretty early on that the women in prisons are very vulnerable, facing a lot of mental health, poverty and addiction issues.
“It was the same story, time and time again, of sexual abuse, drugs and mental illness – and no-one was helping them.
“It is really shocking that we are housing women in this way. A lot of them seemed very ill to me and should not have been there.
“Locking them up doesn’t help them at all. It seems to me that these women shouldn’t be in prison and we are failing them and society.
“There is very little sense of rehabilitation. They come out of prison, nothing has changed and they go back again.
“I went to an induction meeting for new prisoners, and nine out of 10 of them already knew all the rules because they had been in countless times before. That’s a very clear example of why the system doesn’t work.
“I felt pretty aggrieved about that.
“There’s an attitude that prison is only for punishment, and that’s a tough one for any government to correct, as no-one wants to be seen as being soft on criminals.
“But it doesn’t work from a humane or economic perspective. I think we will look back and be ashamed of our prison system.”
Pests begins with Rolly, 21, returning home, heavily pregnant, to her sister Pink’s squalid flat after a spell in prison.
Pink is a heroin addict and has stopped taking the medication for her mental illness. She suffers from psychosis linked to memories of being taken into care and abused in the children’s home.
Pink has been pregnant but had her daughter removed from her.
It seems that Pests will be a bleak watch, but Vivienne says it’s not all doom and gloom.
“There are some funny moments in it. It is a really brutal play and it’s not an easy watch, but within it there is humour.
“I met some really amazing women in prison who are really clever, vibrant and witty. I felt that in another life, if they had had different chances, they wouldn’t have been there.
“I kept feeling that what separates us all is our luck in life.
“So Pests is a very human play, it doesn’t judge the people in it.”
But Vivienne is worried about how society is harshly judging some of its members, as seen by the furore caused by the Channel 4 series Benefits Street.
It followed the residents of James Turner Street in Winson Green, Birmingham, as they struggled on benefits.
“It’s hard for me to comment on Benefits Street because I didn’t see it, I was abroad at the time,” says Vivienne.
“But there does seem to be a general movement in this country of looking down on the disadvantaged, which seems to be gaining in popularity. Blaming the vulnerable for their problems, that seems to be very much in the air.”
Pests is designed for age 16 and upwards because of its gritty content.
But then Vivienne’s last play Mogadishu was fairly adult too, yet it was used as a GCSE drama set text, much to parents’ concern.
They pointed out it included violence, self-harm and 218 uses of the F-word.
Vivienne is sure that Pests will not be appearing on any school curriculums.
She has won several awards for her writing and is very involved with the staging of her plays, from the casting stage onwards.
“For Pests we did a lot of recalls, because I really wanted to be sure we had the right actresses. They are really demanding roles, but the cast we have, of Ellie Kendrick and Sinead Matthews, are brilliant.
“I popped in and out to see it a lot in London, and I will be coming to watch it in Birmingham.
“I keep hold of it,” she smiles.
But writers can’t control everything about how their work is adapted – not that Vivienne wants that.
“It’s brilliant when it comes to life in a way I hadn’t imagined. It’s really exciting that something else is happening that I hadn’t envisaged.
“Fortunately that has only happened in a good way so far.”
* Pests plays Birmingham Rep from June 11-14. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk
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