Since the arrival of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black there has been a ceaseless interest in female incarceration. From the recent documentary TV series Jail Birds to Rachel Kushner’s novel The Mars Room, female prisoners are proving popular with audiences and writers alike. Yet, Sheffield University Theatre Company’s first production of the academic year takes this focus not only away from the US, but back to the early 1800s.
Female Transport is about six women convicted of petty crimes and sent to Britain’s overseas penal colony in present-day Australia for a life of hard labour. For first-time director Katie Kelson, who suggested the play by Steve Gooch after studying it at school, it offered a great opportunity for the society:
“I really wanted to have a show that had women at the forefront and gave the women in SUTCo an opportunity to have quite interesting and complex roles which we haven’t necessarily had since I’ve been at uni,” she said.
The play takes place on the six-month voyage during which the women learn certain truths about society, represented by the crew. Foremost among these is that they have been condemned due to the bias of a male-dominated class system.
Despite being based in the 19th century both Kelson and producer Mia Young noticed the political relevance the play still holds.
“I think a lot of the issues that it looks at with women being in a male-dominated world and seen as second-class citizens are still very prevalent today,” said Kelson.
While some productions in recent years have adapted the play for a modern setting – even going so far as to don the iconic orange jumpsuits – SUTCo have purposefully maintained the historical setting, desiring the audience to draw their own parallels.
In fact, they have fully embraced the period – be it costume designer Molly Wyatt bringing a dissertation-level standard of research to the clothing or prop manager Simon Alford attempting to locate barrels for the set (borrowing one from Bar One is looking likely). There are also adventurous plans to create a two-level set of the ship in the Drama Studio.
“I think it’s quite an exciting set because it’s not often we can do a set that has multiple levels or such large structures,” said Kelson.
Aside from adding an interval, the team have only made minor alterations to the original play, explains Young: “We have really focused on it being naturalistic and immersive.
“We were thinking of not having an interval just so you are caught up in the show because it is quite an intense play, but at the same time there are some moments of beauty and relief.
“We want the audience to live the experience with the characters.”
Female Transport is on at the Drama Studio from 16 to 19 October.