A good night out: Leo Burley talks to Joe White, currently serving life for murder, about his brief escape on to the London stage

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The Independent Culture
Tomorrow afternoon an amateur theatre company will present Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Despite the brevity of the run - one performance only - and the fact that it marks actor-manager Joe White's debut on a London stage, the company anticipate a full house with many professional playwrights and directors in attendance. Anglia TV will film both the play and the following party for a 40-minute documentary, though first-night pleasantries may have to be cut short. Tomorrow night Joe White, 28, is expected back at the Britannia Annex of Norwich Prison, where he is serving a life sentence for murder.

Only 20 years old when convicted of killing a friend during an LSD trip, White has spent the last nine years recasting himself as actor, manager and director of 13 plays in four different prisons. Britannia is a category C pre-release unit, an acknowledgement that White is not considered dangerous (though he isn't in line for early parole). Despite this The Independent arrived to find him leaving by the main gates: 'It's a scene from the documentary' he explains apologetically, 'they wanted to film me leaving for the The Tricycle. One of the cameramen suggested we have a sandwich in his car but I told him the guards would have a fit.'

A tall, softly spoken man with a slim, muscular build (the result of years of martial arts training) White is obviously excited by the attention his day-release is attracting. His list of invited guests would be the envy of any young impresario; Max Stafford-Clark and Stephen Daldry of the Royal Court Theatre will be there, as will the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and casting directors Mary Selway and Patsy Pollock. Many of them have followed White's 'career' for several years.

In 1987, Alan McCormack, the Royal Shakespeare Company director, came into Wormwood Scrubs to work with the prison's drama group and suggested Steven Berkoff's East as an alternative to the more traditional farce and pantomime productions. Berkoff himself attended rehearsals and the project was featured on The South Bank Show, with extracts from the play performed by White and other lifers.

The prison authorities deemed the production too inflammatory to be performed to inmates, a reaction which White has encountered several times since. Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians and Snoo Wilson's The Glad Hand have all been banned at varying stages of production, while other plays were considered suitable only for visiting dignitaries - a fact which still rankles:

'Although it's nice to perform a play to people who know what you are doing in a knowledgeable way, it's completely different with inmates,' he says, 'They don't know the etiquette and they're always shouting things out, but they are the most passionate audience you will ever get. That's why they're here.'

With McCormack at the helm, the Wormwood Scrubs Drama group had no desire to go back to farce and chose as their next production Howard Barker's The Love of a Good Man, a satirical dig into the history of the First World War. As with East, invitations were sent out to the press and the production received complimentary reviews in Time Out and The Stage.

Alongside the critics sat Wertenbaker and Stafford-Clark, then researching Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, an adaptation of a Thomas Keneally novel about a group of convicts putting on a play during transportation to Australia. Stafford-Clark wrote an account of the visit in his book, Letters to George:

'After the performance . . . I asked him (White) if he wanted to be an actor when he got out. He said he did. I was about to introduce him to Patsy Pollock when I thought to ask when he got out. 'Ten to fifteen years' he said. There didn't seem such a hurry for him to meet Patsy after all.'

The two men stayed in touch and earlier this year White was given permission to attend a performance of King Lear at The Royal Court.

'Joe was invited backstage afterwards to meet the cast,' recalls Stafford-Clark. 'It was quite a moving occasion for all of us. Theatre has been a redemptive factor for him in prison and he obviously sees a play like Lear from a completely different perspective than you or I'

By the time Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good opened at The Royal Court, the Wormwood Scrubs' group had been dispersed to various prisons around the land. Lifers are regularly moved from one institution to another. While it is easy to cast the prison authorities as 'baddies' in White's story, it's worth noting that Wormwood Scrubs is a Maximum Security, Category A, Dispersal prison, with no obligation to allow its inmates to see or perform theatre.

The prison's production of The Love of a Good Man featured two professional actresses who needed security clearance to participate. One of them still works with the prison's education department on a regular basis.

In September 1988, White arrived at HMP Blundestone, another high-security prison, where he promptly founded a new drama group with a fellow lifer, Lee Squires. After writing and directing their own play, Timecycles, they proposed a production of Our Country's Good, which by this time had the pedigree of a West End hit. The Governor agreed, costumes from the original show were provided by The Royal Court and once again three female actresses were allowed to join the cast.

'The play and our situation did not just overlap, they merged the borders between the creative process and actuality' wrote White in one of a series of letters which document his various projects.

In the current production of Death and the Maiden real and fictional roles are equally confused. The part of Roberto, a suspected torturer is played by Mick Spink, a prison officer. White plays the liberal lawyer, Gerado, while the role of Paulina - Juliet Stephenson's part in the original Royal Court production - is played by 27-year-old Alice Douglas, whose Kurdish husband was a victim of torture in Turkey.

The experimental combination of inmate and officer was conceived last September on White's return to the Britannia Annex from a requested temporary transfer to nearby HMP Wayland (where he had staged a production of John Wilson's For King and Country, again with Lee Squires). Asked by Britannia's education department to organise a show, preferably a farce, as part of the prison's Xmas celebrations, White chose Dario Fo's Can't Pay, Won't Pay and Spink auditioned for the role of the Marxist police inspector.

'As the play is all about redundancy and people being laid off, I thought it was a very apt choice. The prison's education department had just been put out to tender,' explains White wryly. 'Unfortunately the play was cancelled the week before our first performance, but part of the deal was that I could choose the next production myself and I'd been very impressed by Mick's commitment.'

Death and the Maiden has already been performed to inmates and selected guests at the Britannia Annex and the response has been very positive, due in part to the audience's legal expertise: 'The play raises the whole question of natural justice,' says White. 'When we performed it to the guys in here we asked them whether they thought Roberto was guilty or not. All the people Mick Spink invited from outside said he was guilty, while all the inmates thought he was innocent. Legally speaking there was no evidence against him and they knew it wouldn't have even got to court.'

White views the Tricycle production as the culmination of all his past work. He acknowledges the risk in choosing a play which has enjoyed such recent success elsewhere, but stresses that director, Deborah Bruce, has encouraged the cast to draw from their own unusual experiences and background.

'However it goes it's already a special occasion,' says Timberlake Wertenbaker. 'Joe is an extraordinary example of the importance of theatre in prison and he's inspired people both inside and out. When he's released I think he will hold his own in professional theatre. He's certainly got the talent.'

He has the looks, too, though these were nearly rearranged recently: a fellow inmate who had been turned down for a part in one play tried to make his feelings felt with a sharpened file. Now relieved from the responsibilities of casting and directing, White has been able to focus on his part, though after nine years in prison he is worried about first night nerves. 'I've got this horrible feeling that in the middle of the performance I'm going to realise where I am - not only out of prison, but on a stage.'

Death and the Maiden - Sunday 6 June, 5.30pm. Tickets: pounds 7 - all proceeds will be divided between Amnesty International and the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture. Bookings through the Tricycle Theatre Box Office - telephone 071-328-1000.

(Photograph omitted)