It was not a pleasant experience growing up in Australia’s first all-boys prison in the 1830s, as Alaine Beek’s Point of No Return makes very clear. The play follows four young convicts as they confront the daily hardships of Point Puer Prison, the first in the British Empire that attempted to be rehabilitative rather than just punitive. It raises a question that remains pertinent today: can prison ever rehabilitate? Though the intent is promising, the audience learns quickly that this may not necessarily reflect what really happened at Point Puer.
The boys are constantly under threat of violence and intimidation, and one must wonder how conducive the prison environment is to learning. The guards, many of whom were prisoners themselves at the adult Port Arthur Prison, are responsible for both punishment and teaching. This is not a particularly effective model for rehabilitation. It is one of the play’s more comedic scenes when Red, the leader of the four boys, accidentally sews a sock to the shirt he was meant to be repairing. Rather than following the official curriculum, the boys become far more adept at theft and deception; skills which allow them to protect themselves.
Though the brutality of prison life is made very clear, there is a humbling and hopeful camaraderie between the four boys. The play’s script is at its strongest when it captures their playful, youthful banter. The way in which they mock and joke with each other is completely endearing. Red, the democratically appointed leader of the boys, is decisive and often stubborn, but always acting in the interests of the group. It is he who navigates the complicated alliance with one of the guards to ensure his friends remain protected.
Though there are times when the boys are dangerously reckless, they ultimately remain faithful to one another. An alliance based on more than just mere survival, the actors deliver highly convincing performances in which the depth of their bond and affection is apparent. Given their physical isolation, surrounded by sea on Tasmania’s coast, their loyalty to one another is critical. The circular room at the Melba Spiegeltent, with the audience members seated in a semi-circle around the main action, reinforced a sense of their isolation and made for a perfect venue.
Though the play did touch on several themes such as friendship, belonging and betrayal, it felt as though an overarching narrative was lacking. It was difficult to distinguish whether the play was exploring what good people are capable of in horrible circumstances, or the human spirit’s ability to survive in spite of hardship, or perhaps it was about the triumph of friendship and hope. These themes were explored, but without much depth. Each scene usually involved a dramatic confrontation or confession, but due to the intensity of these moments, there was no clear narrative arc or sense of climax.
I wasn’t too certain what the final message of the play was, however it did leave me with a sense of hope. Though these young men were hardly rehabilitated, many of them did manage to find work and pursue meaningful lives after their release. The hopeful undertones, the playful banter and the really excellent performances by some of the lead actors, make Point of No Return a play worth seeing.
For more information, head to the Circus Oz website.