JAILBABY, Griffin Theatre Company at the Stables Theatre, 7 July-14 August 2023. Photography by Clare Hawley: above Lucia Mastrantone and Anthony Yangoyan; below Yangoyan and Anthony Taufa; below again Yangoyan and Mastrantone
Despite its electrifying drama, Jailbaby is probably destined to live in the shadow of Prima Facie. And because the topic of rape and torture in Australia’s prisons is its central plank, many might not think it’s a nice night’s entertainment. Iniquitous really, because despite its carapace of vicious toughness (bastard justice regime, bastard prisons, obnoxious bourgeoisie), Jailbaby is also tender, emotionally open and intensely human and therefore, great entertainment.
This is not a compare-and-contrast between Suzie Miller’s two most recent stage successes, yet it’s impossible to ignore Prima Facie. It’s barnstorming its way across the world in a way that possibly no other stage play ever has. Hyperbole? Nuh. This play is changing the law and court procedures in a growing number of countries; and changing the way students of law and lawyers approach their work and study. It is therefore changing lives and cultures. It’s a phenomenon. And yet … the morning after, Jailbaby resonates.
Miller has invested rich story in the play. Divided among three actors are 14 characters, fronted by two boys on the cusp of majority and at either end of the social spectrum. AJ (Anthony Yangoyan) is working class and his lack of smarts is almost fatal when he gets involved in a break-and-enter at a luxe home. The gang of three is amateurish, immediately targeting a smart TV and a couple of iPhones and MacBooks. Promising soccer player AJ spots Tim Cahill’s signature on a souvenir Socceroos jersey and pulls it on, dead chuffed with this unexpected bonus.
However, they’ve woken Jo Rawlins (Lucia Mastrantone) and in the scramble to get away, AJ is pushed and dominoes into the woman who takes a nasty tumble. “I’m sorry,” he whispers before fleeing into the night. To Jo’s dismay AJ becomes the target for investigating police officer (Anthony Taufa), not least because she can give a description of the youth who, she repeatedly tells him, said he was sorry.
In contrast, Jo’s son Seth (also Yangoyan) is a stratospherically entitled, spoilt, computer game tragic for whom the Cahill jersey was more an investment than beloved keepsake and who is also commercially minded when it comes to his Ritalin tablets. He exasperates his father (Taufa) but is indulged by his mother. She is also surprisingly soft on AJ, being so struck by his “I’m sorry”, and is anguished when he is sentenced to three-to-five. (Mastrantone also plays, among others, AJ’s legal aid rep and the other side of caring is centred in her: tough love and weary exasperation as she hurries from one hapless client to the next, are the order of her long days.)
The second half illustrates in frightening vividness, but without graphic depiction, what happens to young men when they arrive in our jails. And it must surely ring the most cacophonous bells in each nice person sitting in the auditorium: we know bad things happen to people in jail, especially young males. We know bad things happen to kids in detention – and all in our name.
We the people pay for, know of and condone such national disgraces as Don Dale. We know about the kids age 10-17 who become hopelessly criminalised in such places. We know they are likely to end up in the notorious brutality and crime of jails such as Bathurst and Goulburn. In Jailbaby we meet one of these once-were-innocents and for 90 minutes can’t turn away from how young AJ became a hardened criminal – and how Seth did not … yet.
Jailbaby is directed with intelligent finesse by Andrea James, with disconcerting set and costumes (Isabel Hudson) and lighting (Verity Hampson). With equally unsettling soundscape (Phil Downing), the three actors fill the Stables with such a rich chronicle as to keep a person savouring and remembering for days. Lucia Mastrantone spins a kaleidoscope of different characters with breathtaking clarity and heartbreaking conviction. Anthony Taufa invests his roles with equal power and bewilderment in ways that most men could recognise. And in alternating between the bourgeois snot and the luckless loser, Anthony Yangoyan is an irresistible presence.
Jailbaby is truth-telling of a national shame (the “justice” system and the toxicity of male power/violence) couched in the most personable and humane terms. Recommended without reservation.