Aleks Sierz on Gladiator Games

Aleks Sierz

From his introduction to “Tanika Gupta- Political Plays”

Some plays act as campaigning tools, Gladiator Games was written as an openly political project, but its politics resonate far beyond the immediate reasons for its creation. It is based on the case of Zahid Mubarek, a nineteen year old Asian who was put in Feltham Young offenders Institution for six weeks for stealing some razor blades. Soon after his arrival, he was made to share a cell with Robert Stewart, a known racist with severe mental problems. During the night before Mubarek was due for release, Stewart beat him unconscious with a table leg. The young man died several days later in hospital on 28 March 2000. Clearly there was something very badly wrong with the institution whose authorities put the two men together, and soon stories started to circulate about a practice known as Gladiator Games, which involved wardens putting mismatched prisoners together to see who would win the inevitable fights. Rumours suggested that prison officers laid bets on who would win in such conflicts. The political scandal was that it took Mubarek’s family more than four years to persuade the Government to hold a public Inquiry into what exactly was going on at Feltham. After being approached by Sheffield Theatre, Gupta wrote the play at the time the Inquiry was sitting and it was staged in October 2005, several months before the Inquiry reported.

But although Gladiator Games has some verbatim material based on interviews carried out by Gupta, it is not a simple verbatim drama. She chose to focus on Zahid Mubarek and to use his perspective, rejecting the idea that drama should be balanced and tell both sides of the story. For her it was a play that could give voice to a young man who had been the victim of outrageously bad treatment and a horrific crime. Since he was already dead, she had to invent his dialogue, but invention is what playwrights do. The resulting mixture of fact and fiction is typical of contemporary British theatre, and in this case helps to strengthen the politics of the play. It is chilling to watch the scenes in prison when Stewart dominates the stage, plainly a disturbed young man. But the play also asks other questions with a wider political edge: what is the reason for incarceration in our society? How can locking people up help to rehabilitate them? What are the best policies for making society safe, and criminals better people? Certainly no British government has managed to answer these questions, preferring instead to lock up individuals who are then put at the mercy of prison officers. It is also a play about the cancer of institutional racism.

Gladiator Games was remounted more than once as the inquiry process limped along , and it served both as a publicity tool for the campaign for justice for Zahid Mubarek and as a public forum for audience. When I saw the play at Theatre Royal Stratford East, there was a typically poignant moment at the very end when Zahid says that he loves his mum. It was very emotional and somebody from the audience shouted out, “Tell her again mate”. You could have heard a pin drop.

The play should be commended as both a denunciation of institutional racism in the criminal justice system and a tribute to the Mubarek family and their long struggle for justice.