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The Big Hit review - prisoners play 'Godot' | reviews, news & interviews

The Big Hit review - prisoners play 'Godot'

The Big Hit review - prisoners play 'Godot'

What can possibly go wrong?

Inside acting: Étienne Carboni (Kad Merad, third from left) and his 'Godot' troupe Studio Soho Distribution/ Duchili.com

High culture...low life. Emmanuel Courcol’s film The Big Hit (Un Triomphe in France) is a 105-minute experiment in what might possibly go right – and at the same time what could at any moment go spectacularly wrong – when a group of prison inmates are let out of jail to perform Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

It is well-scripted (by director Courcol and two associates), well-plotted, and has strong central performances. When the prisoners first meet the main protagonist, Étienne Carboni (played by Kad Merad), they spot immediately, from the very first sight of his shoes, that although he chooses to call himself an actor, it is a subjective description rather than the result of a successful career.

We have already seen Étienne doing the kind of jobs actors do as a stand-by, such as running a corporate teambuilding awayday, on which he dons Maori make-up to teach bored middle management types a half-hearted haka.

But then, suddenly, a transformation occurs. Once Carboni has persuaded himself that Beckett’s Godot performed by prisoners is going to make a major statement, his will turns to iron, and he becomes an unstoppable force. “You need to re-read Godot,” he tells theatre director Stéphane (Laurent Stocker) in an effort to book a date for his prisoners to perform. “It’s made for them. Because... waiting...believe me...they know what that is.”

He then finds an ally in the prison system, Ariane (Marina Hands, who gives a superbly nuanced, empathetic performance). She starts to help bend the rules for him to make the project happen. (Pictured above: Marina Hands, Kad Merad.)

Carboni has the complex  yet never fully achieved  task of persuading the prisoners who form his acting troupe that they genuinely do want to turn his dream into reality. And they deliver some great lines in the process, as their minds are slowly turned: “I’d rather be absurd outside than unabsurd inside,” says Jordan Fortineau (Pierre Lottin). From then on the tension of the plot is cleverly ratcheted up, leading to a dénouement  that definitely delivers.

There are various themes in the air, notably the mix of the real and the illusory. What is authentic is the setting. The Big Hit was filmed in the Centre Pénitentiaire de Meaux-Chauconin-Neufmontiers, a prison some thirty miles east of Paris that was completed in 2004 and holds up to 900 inmates; it was impressively caught by cinematographer Yann Maritaud. The production had access to the facilities for eight days.

Courcol was working with a group of professional actors whose most important task at the outset was to act as badly as possible, as prisoners would when trying to act for the first time, and then gradually improve. That was a contortion seemingly beyond David Ayala, too commanding a presence and too natural a Beckettian to act other than mesmerisingly.

This fiction has a factual basis. In 1985, the actor Jan Jönson staged Waiting for Godot with a group of Swedish prison inmates and planned a premiere at Gothenburg City Theatre that never happened because the prisoners escaped. Beckett apparently said, “That’s the best thing that happened to this play since I wrote it!"

Jönson has approved this first retelling of his story. And Godot, as one might say, has more form to be considered: there are documented performances of the play by inmates of Luttringhausen Prison in Germany in 1953, and a 1957 San Francisco Actor's Workshop production, performed at San Quentin Prison, that was examined in the 2010 documentary film The Impossible Itself.

The Big Hit will certainly be of interest to anyone who has taken any role  even as an audience member at a prison  in the work done by performing artists in criminal justice settings. The important endeavours by Andrew Coggins and Royston Maldoom in Dance United come to mind, as do those of Wasfi Kani and Pimlico Opera, who have produced musicals in prisons since 1991.

In the final analysis, The Big Hit is above all about acting, with the prison context, the real prison itself and the wider world just backdrop. We witness many experienced stage actors in the cast bringing their own everyday reality into the story. The director has spent most of his career as an actor. The context itself is theatrical, with Étienne's personal drama as an actor desperate to find a context in which his craft can prosper also being played out  literally at one point – centre-stage. Fans of gritty social comment need to look away. 


Marina Hands as Ariane: nuanced, empathetic, superb


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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