Every Coin at Soho Theatre
Written by Carlon Campbell Robinson
Directed by Esther Baker
“I don’t do politics. I’m just serving my sentence.”
Thus sums up the tone set in postmodern play Every Coin by protagonist Mark (played by the very talented Clifford Samuel), who is serving a prison sentence, amidst the chaos and politics of rising numbers of Muslims gangs within British all-male prisons. Depicting the fraught relationships between a diverse background mix of prisoners, Mark attempts to come to terms with his own identity and frustrations amidst the growing threat of terrorism and violence that serves as currency in his surroundings. With his old friend Raymond becoming a Muslim convert to protect himself (“I didn’t think they even did white Muslims”), and the increasing pressures of leader Ikrimah and his cronies, Mark’s situation seeming to spiral downwards, and his relationships with his friends, wife and daughter becoming increasingly strained. We see how Mark is forced to make decisions to turn his life around, while ultimately having to decide to “Choose Islam or choose to die.”
Using stylised rap to open up the play, the author builds an eclectic dialect made up of London city slang, gangster lingo, Islamic Arabic phrases and contemporary cultural references. From the beginning, the author successfully depicts the cold reality of gang culture, as well as the manipulation of Islam to justify a means to an end. Throughout the play, both the author and the director successfully project thought-provoking, emotional scenes, with a powerful message about the justice system and the futility of violence.
One main significance that is portrayed is the division within the prisons, mainly divided between the ‘whites’ and the Muslims converts. It is ironic that many of these converts are reformed men who used to be London ‘gangsters’. Yet there is still very much a strong gang culture alive within the prisons, which forces men to take refuge in safety offered in the violent interpretation of Islam that has been offered to them. This is very much a real concept that is alive in Britain today; that a growing number of men are joining the strong gang culture which promotes violence as righteous action and reaction.
Also depicted here is the idea of ‘reverse racism’, in which the white prisoners are the minority and are terrorised and intimidated by the larger Muslim population who dominate the prison with their own rules. Although there seems to be a real division set in the prison, which is lightened by the use of humour (“Can’t even have bacon sarnies without having to look over our shoulders”), it can be argued that the case here is not so much the idea of racism and a minority group, but the refusal of either group to co-operate or understand each others’ values. Robinson clearly depicts the similarities in each group, shown in such scenes such as the symmetry of both Christian prayer and Muslims praying at dawn in their own privacy, confirming that “Nothing is as black and white as you think it is.” It is this which also cleverly offers layers of not only colour, but politics and relationships. I would definitely say that Islam itself is not attacked in this play, as this would be too easy and neat a conclusion, but rather we are shown how it is distorted and manipulated to justify violent acts. Ikrimah’s constant brainwashing of other prisoners and his dramatic and quietly violent beliefs further reinforce the idea that violence is used as a way to persuade and force others to fit a certain doctrine, and that it is regarded by many as a suitable way of responding. In this way, the idea that being a Muslim is synonymous with being a terrorist is taken on and exposed, so that we see that the message of peace and love from Islam is exploited and distorted to fit the prisoners’ own means.
Also being examined here is the question of identity, with constant questions of “Who are you?” and “Not what God knows, what do you know?”, forcing Mark to look at his past and also his anger and frustration. With names, attire and even behaviour all being used to represent something, the play successfully uses these tools to show physically how they can all have significance in both religion and identity.Through this the author channels the idea of an individual identity rather than a gang who are dominated and ruled by beliefs that do not always seem to make sense. With charismatic Ikrimah asserting his views that “sometimes the innocent have to be sacrificed” and his followers such as Angel seeking retribution for a past gang killing, the doctrine they have created begins to crack, showing how it does not correspond with the original ideals of Islam.
Like Mark Inspector Cole, who perhaps represents not only the justice system, but also acts as an in-between pivot for both the ‘whites’ groups and Muslim converts, we see a man with his own decisions to make. In him we see an earlier generation, haunted by his own past and experience of combat in the Iraq war. Out of any of the characters, he could be perceived as having the least ‘faith’, choosing to take refuge in logic and the law.
The idea of fatherhood – both being one and having one – also resounds, showing how Mark’s family who have been left behind are not exempt from the impact of him being in jail. While there are emotional scenes, depicting the strain that it is having on his wife and child, the play also chooses to depict their close family bonds, choosing to show Mark as an ordinary father and husband despite his situation:
“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary. Martin Luthor King said that.” “If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘boyfriend’ out of your vocabulary. I said that!”
All in all, this play is goes from intense scenes to comical ones, yet this does not ruin its flow nor its overall message. Although the scenes are played out on a small stage, having the effect of making the audience feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable, this helps create an extraordinary atmosphere of intimacy which fits with the idea of looking at the cold, hard truth. There are many powerful, raw scenes, and at times you can see the emotions of the author peep through– it is no coincidence that the author is currently serving a prison sentence and his voice really comes through. The play is full of layering which is wrought with cynicism. When I went to see the play, it was interesting and satisfying to see a multicultural audience, suggesting an open-minded willingness to see what Convictions has to say. With wry humour also thrown in – (“It’s a long story.” “I’m serving a life sentence”), and references to the current David Cameron and Clegg coalition thrown in, such as Cameron’s idea of that multiculturalism no longer exists (leading to uproar amongst the converts who regard this as an attack), Convictions really caputres a cross-section of society today within the prison.
“The old way doesn’t work anymore. It’s dated. Nobody gives a f**k about postcodes. Or about who done what to who before Islam.” It can definitely be agreed that terrorism has shaped the way Islam is perceived. The current postmodern world – and also post-9/11 world – means we look at things differently, and there is a very real issue of young men being brainwashed by the violence of terrorism, which is being called righteous under the label of Islam. With an increasing number of young men serving prison sentences in the Western world for attacks in the name of Islam, is time that someone has set the record straight. Robinson very perceptively projects the idea of frustration – at the justice system, at gang culture, at the way people treat others and are treated, showing how Islam is used as both a scapegoat and a tool to victimize men. I applaud both the director and the writer of this play; Convictions received a standing ovation when I went to see it and very rightly so.
Convictions Every Coin is no longer showing, but you can still catch Convictions’ other plays such as The Archbishop and the Antichrist at Soho Theatre on Dean Street in London as well as other shows which are available which look promising.