Billy Hayes delivers his side of the Midnight Express story
It’s been more than 35 years since Alan Parker’s film Midnight Express sent the term Turkish prison to infamy and birthed writer Oliver Stone’s own autobiographical Oscar-laden career. At the center of this true story, however, is a man, and in Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, an honest and riveting solo account now playing at the St. Luke’s Theatre, that man – Billy Hayes – finally gets to tell his tale without the frills of a Hollywood ending.
And a Hollywood middle. And a Hollywood beginning, as it turns out. For over the course of nearly seventy minutes of stage time, Hayes, a dynamic performer in a flawless delivery, directed by John Gould Rubin, documents the facts of his early life that culminated in his arrest and imprisonment. Those who know the milestone film well might be surprised to learn how little of the story they actually know.
What makes this odder is that the true story is both more action-packed and poignant than Parker’s portrayal. In 1970, a 23-year-old cocky Hayes, very much a child of the sixties, had transported hashish from Turkey to the United States on three separate occasions. On what was to be his fourth and final run, he was apprehended by airport security and arrested for possession of two kilograms. His sentence was eventually lengthened to thirty years.
Hayes’ tale is initially one of survival – he details the harsh living conditions (one hour of hot water a week, as opposed to the daily shower access depicted onscreen) and is candid about intimate relationships with fellow prisoners. Other details that differ between truth and fiction are more significant: he never bit the tongue off of an antagonistic prison guard, nor did he ever deliver a scathing anti-Turkey speech in court. In fact, more than any real-life transgression, it is this scene in the film that made Hayes persona non grata with the country, to which he has only returned once in 2007.
It’s when Hayes is transferred to an island prison that Riding becomes a story of determination and escape. Watching Hayes describe a laborious escape effort involving hiding in a stolen boat on his way to Greece transports the audience to that exact treacherous mission. His complete recall for imagery and detail astounds, and pulls the audience right into his tale in ways many solo shows cannot due to for this who need more visual cues to follow a story. Equally impressive is how his tale never feels rehearsed, despite Hayes’ many years of telling his account (which he has done in two books, Midnight Express, which Stone adapted for the screen, and Midnight Return, which details Hayes’ life following his imprisonment). Rubin and Hayes manage to project the feeling that Hayes is revealing these facts for the first time, and pace it enough so that the show is taut but gives the audience space to follow along. As he remarks, none of this heroic sojourn, which could comprise a movie of its own, made it into the movie.
Hayes, sleek and youthfully energetic, bears no resentment nor bitterness toward the Turkish government that robbed him of several years of his life. As a Q-&-A session following the show makes clear, he is happy to have survived the ordeal and feels blessed for the story it has given him to tell. I have the feeling that he won’t be alone.
Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes
St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street. www.telecharge.com
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