Play provides stark reminder of a racist prison killing

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The Independent Culture

The spotlight on a hospital gurney and drip - indicative of Zahid Mubarek's last moments alive - provided a savage reminder of a teenager bludgeoned to death by his cellmate. Following other theatre productions based on real life suffering - such as the Hatfield rail crash - the award-winning playwright Tanika Gupta has focused on the murder of the young Asian teenager in Gladiator Games, which opens in Sheffield tonight.

Mr Mubarek, 19, was fatally beaten by his racist, psychopathic cellmate Robert Stewart on the day in March 2000 that he was due to be released from Feltham Young Offender Institution after serving a short sentence for theft.

His family fought a lengthy legal battle against a reluctant Home Office for a public inquiry - now in its final stages and due to report early next year.

Gladiator Games is so called because of the alleged practice - claimed by some, denied by others - that prison officers deliberately placed conflicting inmates together.

By combining the words of Mr Justice Keith's inquiry with the dramatisation of events, the play - perhaps more brutally than any other forum - illustrates the gaping chasm between those who attempt to rationalise society's ills and those caught up in its most violent excesses. The sterile, educated and rational meets the bloody, dispossessed and senseless.

As the words of psychiatrist Professor John Gunnclinically relate that Robert Stewart was a "disaster waiting to happen", the young man - or to be more precise actor Tom McKay - is violently drawing a stream of blood from his arm or maniacally screaming, ape-like around a deliberate fire in his cell.

The sound of the Independent Monitoring Board's acknowledgement that lack of free time was degrading to the boys is set to the feral howling of a teenager, wailing for his mother from behind bars.

Ms Gupta and the play's director, Charlotte Westenra, have been faithful to events. The script is largely verbatim accounts from several inquiries, police transcripts and in-depth interviews. The words of parents, Amin and Sajida Mubarek, are their own.

"When we met them, what I found palpable was Zahid's death was very, very much felt in that room. We met two people who are utterly aware that their son is not with them. His absence felt really strong. I left feeling very upset and then terribly, terribly angry," said Ms Westenra.

For Ms Gupta, writing the play was a journey of discovering one shocking failing after another.

"Obviously I want people to be moved by the play. I hope it makes them look around them and think, 'there by the grace of God'. The Mubarek family has done us all a favour by highlighting this and making the prison service more accountable," she said.

The small team of actors are equally passionate. Tom McKay said he was determined not to make Stewart a "pantomime villain" and would try to find some depth in a disturbed man. Ray Panthaki, who plays Mr Mubarek, seeks to portray him as a young man with a sense of humour and not just a victim.

Making drama from justice

* The Permanent Way, Sir David Hare

The play examines rail privatisation and draws on interviews with survivors of rail crashes.

* The Colour of Justice, Richard Norton-Taylor

A reconstruction of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

* Guantanamo: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom", Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo

How the US captured Muslims and deposited them, ignoring the law, into the military base.

* Stuff Happens, Sir David Hare

Political events leading up to the Iraq war, focusing on the Bush and Blair administrations.

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