The Hard Cell

2 May 2012 | 8:00 am | Aleksia Barron

“Do you know much about why this play was written?” Theatre director Stuart Grant is very passionate about his latest project – a new production of Everynight, Everynight, the notorious prison-set play by Ray Mooney. In fact, so great is his passion for the project that he's happy to offer up an impromptu history lesson. “There was the Jenkinson Inquiry in 1972,” he says, referring to the Royal Commission that took place in response to the violence rife within Pentridge Prison's notorious H Division. “It was prominent enough in the news that even as a 15-year-old boy in Melbourne, I knew about H Division,” explains Grant. “It was quite a big social issue… but the inquiry turned into a whitewash.”

The playwright, Ray Mooney, was serving four months in H Division himself and became acquainted with Christopher Dale Flannery, the infamous Australian hitman. Mooney wrote Everynight, Everynight in response to the extreme violence he encountered in prison, and the play ultimately proved to have an invaluable legacy. “Even though [the inquiry] was a whitewash, the move for prison reform didn't die away,” says Grant. “This play contributed to the public discourse around that.”

Now, Grant is involved in a key revival of the play, and he's thrilled to be sitting in the director's chair. “It has never been performed on stage by a company of highly skilled professional actors,” he says. “It's always been performed in jail or by small amateur little companies.” (In fact, the play's first staging in 1978 featured a cast of ex-convicts and real violence on stage.) For this production, Grant wanted a great cast, first and foremost. “I decided to put together a team of very good actors, and do a significant production of what I thought was a significant play.”

The cast is impressive – the likes of Steve Bastoni, Damian Hill and Adrian Mulrainey, who boast some of the most impressive CVs in Australian acting, are all involved. There's one actor who was particularly important to Grant, however: John Brumpton, who appeared in an early production of Everynight, Everynight, and is now returning to the play (albeit in a different role). Talking with Brumpton proved particularly inspirational for Grant. “We just started talking about the fact that even though there has been significant reform in the prison system, there's only so much reform that's possible,” he says. “You're still locking people up, you're still depriving people of their liberty – there is a certain amount of inherent violence in it.”

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It led to a debate about the best approach to the play's text – after all, would a play written in the 1970s still feel relevant on a modern stage? “We started to think, 'Do we update it?'” says Grant. The answer that he eventually found surprised him. “As we started to work on it, we found that the play itself is so well written, and so strong as it is, that we didn't need to update it.” After all, that's the beauty of great theatre – it often retains its essence and holds its importance regardless of the date of performance. “All we needed to do was just work from the text and let it speak,” explains Grant. “It didn't need any adaptation at all.”

Show runs from Tuesday 8 to Saturday 26 May (no shows Sunday and Monday) at Gasworks