Tom Magill – Macbeth in Prison: Healing Trauma

November 5, 2013


Director Tom Magill

Director Tom Magill

Tom Magill, co-founder and artistic director of the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC), uses drama and film to heal the trauma so deeply rooted within criminal justice and mental health settings. Centered in Belfast, Northern Ireland, ESC works to enable those mired in brutal circumstances to understand and transform their lives through the creative process. The plays of Shakespeare, most prominently Macbeth, feature strongly in this healing process. ESC describes itself as an award-winning culture and arts education charity specializing in storytelling through drama and film.

“The majority of people I work with,” says Tom Magill, “are carrying trauma. Trauma is a wound from the past that is still haunting the present and preventing them from taking meaningful action to enhance their lives.

“Often, as a result of this experience, many traumatized people feel unable to create. First,” Magill says, “we must enable this creative capacity that everyone has. Through experience, I have developed certain skills, as a writer, director and actor, that I can share with people and put at their service, when we are engaged in the creative process of recording their traumatic stories on film.”

Growing Up With Violence

Tom Magill comes to this work with firsthand experience of violence and the prison life.

Violence in prison

Violence in prison

Magill grew up in the time of “the troubles.” In Northern Ireland, from the 1960s through to the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement in 1998, the troubles claimed the lives and spirits of many young men, in one fashion or another. It was his own violent behavior that put Magill in a British prison in the early 1970s. Assigned to deliver and retrieve food trays from prisoners’ cells, Magill steeled himself to enter the cell of Frank Stagg, accused republican IRA member and, as such, Magill’s avowed enemy. He was poised to kill Stagg, rather than have him attack first.

Unknown to Magill, Stagg was in the midst of a self-imposed hunger strike. What Magill did see was a half-starved, emaciated man. This declared enemy was starving himself in a British prison because he wanted to be repatriated to an Irish prison. Magill came face-to-face with the man’s weakness and vulnerability.

“Any anger I had for this man turned to compassion,” says Magill. “Meeting my enemy in prison changed my life.”

My enemy became my teacher.

Stagg told Magill he was wasting his life. That night Magill went to the prison library and got a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” The principal character, Tom Joad, is himself an ex-prisoner. Stagg’s advice, the novel, and a pursuant involvement in drama turned Magill away from a life of escalating violence.


Tom Magill Introduction from ESCproductions on Vimeo.

Filmmaking as a Transformative Tool

Now deeply involved in helping others move away from a life of violence, Magill says, “What motivates me to do this filmmaking work is certainty in the knowledge that the creative process can transform lives, as it transformed my life. My creative risk happens each time I find the courage to begin the process of creation anew.”

Magill says, “Violence has been called the last realm of the inarticulate.” His aim: to teach men to communicate through words. By creating their own stories in film, the men can explore the feelings around the violence they have committed in the past. “They use the safety of fiction to do that,” says Magill.

Violence… the last realm of the inarticulate.

Mickey B – ESC’s film adaptation of Macbeth – was produced by prisoners and set in Maghaberry, a maximum security prison in Northern Ireland. The most effective way to understand the adaptation is to view the trailer and the behind-the-scenes video. The film itself is for sale here.

Mickey B Trailer from ESCproductions on Vimeo.

Shakespeare’s Message

“Shakespeare is difficult,” says Magill. “Working with Michael Bogdanov taught me that Shakespeare requires updating and translating to be meaningful and relevant to an audience today. When I first read Shakespeare in prison it gave me a headache. The language is difficult to get through.

“But when we penetrate the text we find the nuggets of insight about human behaviour and motivation and the consequences of immoral action. These nuggets enable us to learn more about ourselves and what we value. These insights produce understanding. When we reach understanding, then we are at a point where we can choose to change how we do things.

Magill believes this transformation in action is an empowering process. “We can recreate ourselves using these insights and understandings from Shakespeare. The message is – transformation is possible, even for those who are socially excluded in a prison. The impact comes through the effort of engagement. ‘The act of transforming has a transformative effect upon the creator.’ Augusto Boal.”

The Journey of Transformation

“I have also learned how to work with a group,” says Magill, “in order to develop the trust, rapport and courage necessary to embark on a creative journey of transformation.

“The stories we work on are true. Either true stories directly from people’s own experience or stories from fiction that people can relate to in terms of the truth of the emotional experience.

“I would sum up my approach to directing these film and drama projects as a joint creative exploration. We find the common ground of emotional experience when we are working with fiction. Often, I am unfamiliar with the story world where their drama happens. In such cases,” says Magill, “I listen and learn from the people I work with in order to try and create an authentic and believable location, narrative, and performance, within the poverty of our given circumstances.”


More Information

The Educational Shakespeare Company

Tom Magill

A short introduction to Mickey B:

5minMickeyB from ESCproductions on Vimeo.

For more information, see the publication:

Forthcoming: Outer speares: Shakespeare, intermedia, and the limits of adaptation, ‘Macbeth becomes Mickey B in maximum security.’ Edited by Daniel Fischlin, University of Guelph, published by Toronto University Press (2014). Chapter title: Transgression and Transformation: Mickey B and the Dramaturgy of Adaptation. An Interview with Tom Magill. Daniel Fischlin, Tom Magill, Jessica Riley.

See ESC’s films on Vimeo.

Growing Up With Violence:

Growing Up With Violence from ESCproductions on Vimeo.