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A CurtainUp London London Review
Gladiator Games

The prisoners could be one black, one white, one big, one small, one bully paired with another bully. Whatever the combination the intention was to see whether or not the two fell out and came to blows . . . the officers were betting on the outcome of such pairings. --- Evidence of Duncan Keys
Gladiator Games
Ray Panthaki as Zahid Mubarek and Kevin Trainor as Robert Stewart
(Photo: Johan Persson)
On the eve of his release from Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in March 2000, Zahid Mubarek, a young British Asian man was attacked by his cellmate. One week later he died from his injuries. Tanika Gupta has dramatised the story of how this nineteen year old man met his death and who was responsible for his being shut up in a cell with a dangerous violent and racist cellmate. The horrifying conclusion is that the prison service were complicit in that they knew this could happen and they had placed these two men deliberately together in the expectation of a fight. Hence the title of the play Gladiator Games. The prison warders claimed no-one knew what crimes the inmates were in for. The enquiry found that there were 15, yes 15, separate incidents when prison staff could have identified the situation and, if they had acted on even one of them, Zahid Mubarek would not have placed in the situation where he was killed.

Tanika Gupta has dramatised the events using material from statements made at the time and from the official enquiry into the death of Zahid Mubarek (Ray Panthaki). The conclusions are ugly and uncomfortable illustrating the prison service as a deeply racist institution. Gupta has been careful not to demonise Zahid's murderer, Robert Stewart (Kevin Trainor) but to portray him as a very troubled young man with mental health problems who was also let down by the prison service.

The play is narrated by Imtiaz Amin (Ray Panthaki), Khalid Mubarek's uncle and ten years his senior. Imtiaz Amin was the leader of the family's campaign to have the circumstances surrounding Zahid Mubarek's death made the subject of an official enquiry. Anti-racism campaigner and founding member of the National Civil Rights Movement Suresh Grover is played by Shiv Grewal. It was Suresh Grover who guided the family through the maze of British politics and legal redress. David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary refused to meet them, refused to reply to their letters. Even this week he was invited to attend a performance of Gladiator Games but he was not there.

The play has been revised since it premiered in October/November 2005 in Sheffield and Stratford. It takes the form of a drama documentary as all the material is taken from evidence presented. The scenes shift from Feltham to the court of enquiry, a simple metal set with balcony providing both venues. Charlotte Westenra cut her directorial teeth on similar productions with political enquiry themes at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Although there are only five actors, they are adept at portraying ten different characters so that at no point was I confused as to who was speaking.

The family point out how Zahid Mubarek's case has attracted less attention and less public sympathy than that of Stephen Lawrence. They feel this is because Zahid was in prison convicted of a minor offence but they say that prisoners have rights too. The prison service has a duty of care to its inmates and Zahid did not get this care. Gladiator Games is a disturbing and pertinent evening in the theatre with superlative performances. It illustrates the power of drama in retelling injustice and bringing an understanding of the issues to a wider audience.

Dramatised by Tanika Gupta
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Starring: Shiv Grewal, Ray Panthaki
With: Robert Trainor, Paul Keating, Claire Lichie
Design: Paul Wills
Lighting: Hartley TA Kemp
Sound: Nick Greenhill
Composer: Niraj Chag
A Joint Production by Sheffield Theatres and the Theatre Royal Stratford East
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0800 183 1188
Booking to 25th February 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th February 2006 performance at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Stratford, London E15 (Rail/DLR/Tube: Stratford)
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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