by: JK Clarke
Anyone who has seen the 1978 thriller Midnight Express (which was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two—for its haunting soundtrack and for Oliver Stone’s terrific script), likely remembers the film vividly. It is a harrowing account of a young man, Billy Hayes, who, in 1970, is arrested at the Istanbul, Turkey airport for smuggling several kilos of hashish. Hayes’ ordeal in Turkish prisons is the stuff of nightmares, but it is his wild escape that is most indelible. And even more breathtaking is that the events, with a good deal of poetic license, actually happened.
The long-lasting impression that the film leaves on its viewers would suggest that it’s not a story that needs to be retold. But, that’s just what’s happening in Riding the Midnight Express at St. Luke’s Theatre (through March 23). But this time it’s the actual Billy Hayes telling the real story. And his narrative is just as much a humdinger as the film.
Seeing Hayes seated on a stool, microphone in hand, looking fit, trim and smiling in a tight black t-shirt and appearing decades younger than his actual 66 years is a comforting reassurance that things ultimately turned out all right for him. There’s much less anticipated dread as he tells of his stupid plan to make money through smuggling, his capture, his imprisonment, and the horrible trick of political maneuvering (and bad timing) that turned his five year imprisonment into a life sentence.
One might ask why he is still retelling this story 40 years hence. “It’s obviously something I need to do; it’s cathartic for me,” says a very self-aware Hayes. And it is for us, too, as he helps undo some of the prejudices we likely built up about Turkey and its judiciary system, based on the film’s portrayal. Hayes, by contrast, loves Turkey, particularly Istanbul, and has done his best to repair relations with the country, whose tourism dropped an astonishing 95% following the film’s release.
When Hayes describes aspects of the story that depart from the film—how he escaped, what prison he escaped from—as well as those that are accurately portrayed—his capture, prison life itself—the telling is vivid and captivating. He is articulate, well-spoken, and extremely thoughtful and self-aware. He attributes much of his survival both in and out of prison to his dedication to the yoga practice which he perfected while imprisoned. It shows.
Riding the Midnight Express is the ultimate in storytelling. It’s an absolutely riveting account, told by a master storyteller. Billy is the kind of guy you want to meet at a party: he grabs your attention, tells you an amazing tale in the most captivating way possible, and when all is said and done, he can probably point the way to the most killer hash you’ll ever find.
Riding the Midnight Express. Directed by Gould Rubin. Through March 23 at St. Luke’s Theatre (308 West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues). www.ridingthemidnightexpress.com