WHEN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICE
(click on title for a short video/feature article published on Easter Sunday 2012)
Photography by Georgia Oetker, Darrin Lupi Zammit and Junior Agyeman
and Instruction must both work ‘ere the rude beast be tamed’
Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare.
It was hard to believe that it was less than an hour ...
Even an hour in the fairy tale world of Malta.
It was hard to believe that it was September and in a prison ... but it was.
I had initially come to Malta to take part in a European Prisons Education Association (EPEA) Conference. Having participated in a vast multitude of similar undertakings internationally I said I’d only do so in this instance if my contribution could be framed within a practical format. Specifically I said it should entail at least one interactive ‘Shakespeare Workout’ and ONLY then if at least one session could be held INSIDE a prison (knowing, as I did, that there was only one such entity extant inside that glorious island nation.)
Thus it was that I was privileged to lead a team of fourteen European prison educators in a truncated ‘Shakespeare Workout’ not only in their hotel in St. Paul’s Bay and at the University of Malta but within the Corradino Correctional Facility’s (CCF) Young Offender’s Unit (YOURS) in Paola. I should perhaps mention that this particular sport (the Shakespeare workouts, I mean) are a particular passion not only of mine but also of the charity I was privileged to found in 1997 aside Dame Dorothy Tutin, the London Shakespeare Workout (LSW).
LSW's stated purpose demands that we we seek: ‘To employ the works of Shakespeare alongside other major dramatic/cinematic/musical writers and thinkers as a tool towards effective interaction in order to (a) create new work and (b) promote confidence through the Will to Dream for ALL.’ Blessedly these goals were manifestly fulfilled in Malta. Indeed, so successfully so that it resulted in nothing less than the culmination of LSW’s notable fourteen year history. ALL strands were herein pulled together under one unifying, celebratory umbrella.
There was, of course, no way of knowing that the fulfilment of my initial conference request would lead (as it did) to the construct of a virtual guide book for international good practice. Still it was to be, as Shakespeare might say, ‘full circle’. Fate helped us to find ourselves ‘right on’.
Certainly there are not many occasions in ANYONE’S life where one actively feels that history is being made. Here that sense was palpable.
But why? Why should this undertaking be special; be different from so many others?
For me, it will always be primarily due to the determined commitment of the young men I was privileged to engage with there. They remain the HIGHLIGHT.
Never have I worked INSIDE with such a committed team. Team work is, of course, not something GLOBALLY celebrated within prisons. Oft a culture of isolation persists. These lads broke those bounds. They did so legally and with just pride. Never was there EVER a hint of mouthing words. I confess I've sometimes seen elements of such behaviours in segments of many other much celebrated LSW productions. Not ONCE did I here.
‘If you’re good, then I’ll be good too,’ Jose would shout as a rallying call. Together and apart these lads would promote confidence through their own WILL to dream FOR ALL.
These young men proudly owned their language from the get go. They only EVER strove to make it better; to help each other. Moreover, they respected the multitude of languages spoken by virtue of their own varying cultures. Each became a part of the fabric of our whole. Following Shakespeare's example we moulded a tongue. That tongue itself taught inclusion. It lived it.
Making up this particular international ‘band of brothers’ - young offenders all - were two lads from Britain, (one from London’s sometimes troubled Tottenham, another proudly from Newcastle); two from the USA (one an ex-member of the US navy, the other a New Jersey native of Latin extract whose partner had only recently given birth to his first child); a gloriously talented Estonian boy (‘My name is Aulis and I am an actor’ he'd proudly proclaim); a young Portuguese who at first could not raise his eyes to meet mine but ended with the focused admiration of many; another from Ethiopia who was oh, so delighted to be able to respectfully share his native Amharic with any and all comers and a 19 year old Spanish boy who initially spoke not a word of 'Ingles' but proudly finished celebrating the fact he could ‘even joke in English now’.
As Shakespeare might say: ‘They were there.’ They were ALWAYS there; open and immediate.
They'd later say I changed their lives. I hadn’t. Shakespeare and their own determination had. They had engaged themselves. Engagement is ALWAYS key.
At best I helped them to help themselves. In return they'd provided me with a UNIQUE gift: They fostered a framework to bring LSW’s own lifeblood into a focus I'd only previously EVER been able to dream of.
But why? Why there? Why them?
At first, I confess, I wasn’t certain. Walking out of that initial workshop door it would have been all-too-easy to simply doubt my instinct. Still I knew there was something different here; something rare.
Within seconds of stepping beyond that initial threshold I found the answer. I met Joanne Battistino, the Director of Operations within that particular prison’s oh, so lucky walls.
This is a woman whose heart opens both minds and souls where doors so frequently are slammed shut. Hers is by no means a perfect world – very far from it. Still, - thanks to Joanne – this is a world sincerely seeded in a baseline of hope. That hope travels far. That hope is, in fact, why this situation IS different; why she deserves to stand out as a global role-model. The hope she inspires is key to ANY life-giving force. It ALONE gifts courage. It's tangible. You can taste it. You smell it. It's all about.
Having enjoyed the privilege of international exposure in this particular regard, I immediately sensed that this young woman’s sincere determination - her 'specialness' if you prefer - needed to be celebrated. It deserved to be cherished not just by the Maltese; but by a world hungry for an effective example of success in both creative engagement and education.
Within an hour of that initial celebratory workshop, Joanne had written me an email:
‘Dear Dr. Wall,
It was indeed an honour and a great pleasure to have you deliver a taste of what drama in prisons can achieve. The residents who participated in that session, despite their initial hesitation, have now gone back to their division telling the other residents about the great time they had. A wise man once told me that to bring down a wall, you do not need to smash into it. All you need to do is to take out a few stones from its base, and the wall will fall on its own. I think your session today did just that … Honestly, I really appreciate what you managed to achieve in less than an hour!’
Within but a few more hours a future plan had been hammered together. All boats were suddenly pushed out, but flinch Joanne did not.
We would, I proffered, concoct a theatrical presentation enveloping the multi-national cultures there-in indoctrinated. This would be created inside the prison but performed in a professional theatre outside to show full vocational achievement. Additionally it would be filmed as part of a documentary for global distribution so that posterity itself might have a chance to benefit whene'er in need and best able to listen.
As it turned out – even without the final documentary - this would, itself, represent the best documented programme LSW has ever known.
From start to finish its progress was suffused with a multitude of feature articles. (You can find but two samples of such by clicking on the following digits, 1 , 2). There was a bevy of digital segments including the news, not only on television but radio as well. (For segments in English from the sampled radio broadcast please scroll through to [a] the middle mark for production recordings rendered early in our rehearsal process and [b] insightful inmate interviews at the three-quarters juncture.)
How I well remember the lads’ joy in proudly recording the longest speech Shakespeare ever wrote - (the prison speech from Richard II) - in a studio that had been hastily rigged up in one of the miniscule lawyers’ interview rooms. A fitting irony perhaps. I doubt that space will ever see MORE people crammed within its compact circumference. Nor shall it ever be like to see more creative determination.
This entire project's evolution would additionally be evidenced by a multitude of stunning photo galleries (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) wrought on an entirely volunteer basis by that ever-extraordinary personage known to our fortunate world as Georgia Oetker.
In a further blessing, the official Reuters photographer for Malta, the inspired Darrin Lupi-Zammit, would appear early in our progression. He'd come to photograph the lads when they were first learning an Elizabethan pavane. ‘This may be a one off’ he said, ‘I've a lot on.’ Fortunately that proved NOT to be the case. Darrin too was bitten by what I call ‘the lads' bug'. He became, most happily, a hugely valued member of our family. His electronic feature for The Malta Sunday Times is, I feel, nothing short of inspired. This, too, was etched on an entirely volunteer basis. After shooting but one of the performances Darrin would confide: ‘This is one of the few times I’ve ever taken pictures with tears in my eyes,’
How could one EVER forget the luminous Dame Harriet Walter joining Aulis in filming a segment from King Lear’s restoration scene. What made it SO special was the fact that they did so within the Corradino Correctional Facility’s secure visits area. Shakespeare, himself, I'm confident would have been justly proud.
Nor, indeed, will one soon forget the occasion of that sudden ‘first’ revelatory outing for the lads ‘outside’. Here all were SUMMONED to give a full 20 minute presentation within the relative splendour of the Maltese Ministry of Justice’s Auberge. This was, one recalls, a full week prior to the theatrical world premiere of the piece itself. Many professional companies would struggle to meet such a challenge. These lads rose to the occasion without flinching. They breezed through even in the eager face of a enormous panoply of film cameras. (Click here for a short video segment and photos). At the brief reception which followed one young offender mused: ‘You forget what it feels like to hold a REAL glass’.
Not all, of course, was smooth sailing. I had been approached by Elizabeth Evans from Matchlight Films about taking part in a programme on Shakespeare for ITV. This, I was told, would evolve around the extraordinary Lenny Henry's own personal journey with the Bard. Mr. Henry was then appearing in The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre. I said I would be delighted to participate, but that it would need to be framed around a slice of the international history shortly to be wrought in Malta. We talked of creating a unique programme tailor made for Lenny by the lads. It would celebrate his own multi-national roots through Shakespeare. I was then fortunate enough to meet with the director, the rightly esteemed Elizabeth Dobson (herself responsible for all of the much admired 'Who Do You Think You Are?' TV series). Everyone seemed festively keen with the concept at that juncture being, as it was, immediately prior to Christmas. In preparation for a final pitch-hit in which all 'i's' would be dotted I had the lads write 'Letters to Lenny'. I will quote but one in full. (Please click on the link to see a copy of the actual handwritten note itself.)
'Dear Mr. Henry,
We have been introduced to the work of Shakespeare. We are a group consisting of ten people from all over the world and although our thoughts and opinions are different, we all think the same about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not just a name or act, it is freedom! Some of us here will not see freedom for a long time, but like yourself we have found a place we can all be free and be who we want to be. Mr. Bruce Wall has given us the belief and trust to see a side of ourselves we never knew existed. Throughout this journey we have learned how to trust ourselves and each other. We are being given the chance to seek life on a different journey. As you've done with your career, we would like to do in life. We hope that with your help, through good old Shakespeare, we can achieve this.
For a long time it looked as if all was well. Diary dates were set, prison clearances received, Maltese accommodation for all attained on a complimentary basis and even Lenny's own hectic calendar cleared. In the end some higher-power-that-be found that forging "a link with Malta" might simply prove too awkward a challenge in this specific remit. I, myself, can but feel that this was, in the end, the audience's loss. Nonetheless, the lads' words continue to speak for themselves.
As a final item on our project's bill, - one that DID actually happen - the lads presented a uniquely focused celebration of their own theatrical skill within the prison's chapel. This was done in order that members from the adult, women's and young offender's divisions might be able to share a taste of the skill that the lads had displayed outside. This, however, was no mere mere regurgitation. THIS was an ESPECIALLY developed programme featuring a wide sampling from the magnificent range of music composed by Christopher Hamilton, the very talented British composer who had, himself, realised eleven of the fifteen songs within our main-stage treatise. The stunning numbers rendered here (many NOT heard as part of WHEN YOU HEAR MY VOICE and inclusive of one world premiere) were performed by two West End guest stars especially imported for the occasion: Shimi Goodman (hailing from Israel) and Madalena Alberto (from Portugal). Their audience received all rapturously. One notorious inmate revelled: 'It makes you forget you're in prison.' For me a definite highlight was the song 'ONCE' sung in both Russian and English to a lyric by Pushkin. IN ALL Chris' music, much as it had done throughout, made very complex lyrics immediately attainable; always enhancing rather than being merely decorative.
I had, in fact, from the very beginning insisted on this particular incentive (e.g., the prison performance). I'd found the Corradino Correctional Facility's education regime to be a decidedly wayward affair. I was amazed, for example, to learn that not ONE of the young offenders involved in WHEN YOU HEAR MY VOICE - including Aulis who had been on remand for FOUR years - had EVER been ONCE assessed for ANY educational incentive. Dr. Joseph Giordmania, the director of Prison Education Programmes at the University of Malta (UoM) - and one who, himself, was instrumental in securing yet another unique precedent for our project, - namely the legal Memorandum of Understanding openly agreed to and signed by all four participating legal entities (LSW, CCF, SJCC and UoM) - is currently working to right some of these embedded educational wrongs. Should such prove possible, that too would stand as yet another effective legacy for our work.
Within 24 hours of the presentation of my INITIAL plan to Joanne, the detailed core of each aspect of this project (inclusive of of the dedicated talk-back at the end of each public performance) had been cemented. Hastily I told her that I wanted to meet with the lads in the prison before I flew back to the UK the next day. I knew it was critical to get their commitment. I also knew, of course, that this was highly irregular. One had to guard against holding out false carrots. Certainly I knew full well that this would NEVER be permitted in a UK prison. I had, after all, undertaken programmes in 100 different correctional estates in England ALONE.
Still, I sensed – as part of making OURS a vital piece of 'history’ - an international example - that these young men - usually the last to be told anything - needed, in this instance, to be the first to know. Imploring Joanne I pleaded: ‘This is yet another precedent that NEEDS to be established’. Bravely Joanne agreed and would later say: ‘That made all the difference’.
As I dashed out from that particular meeting in preparation to catch my plane, Frank (one of the two dedicated Americans) asked an officer for permission to step forward. It seemed the Spanish boy, Justo, was concerned. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘He wonders if his lack of English will preclude his participation?’ Waving, I turned and said, smiling: ‘Tell him to work on it’.
Little more than a month later I would return to Malta to undertake a programme of theatrical exercises. Through these we hoped, having formed a dedicated team, that we might together discover fresh aspects with which to frame the over-riding arc of our dramatic presentation.
At the end of a very productive first day I suddenly realised that there’d been no translation into Spanish for Justo: ‘What happened?’ I asked as he moved through the workshop door. ‘I wanted to do this so I worked on it every day,’ he beamed. For himself as much as anyone else, Justo delivered. The next day the lads would write original verses in iambic utilising a self-chosen line from the Bard as inspiration. Justo’s would, amazingly, be amongst the strongest. 'Is this alright?' he'd ask. It was better than good.
The one review for this adventure I will ALWAYS personally cherish MOST came in the form of a card written one inmate's mother. 'Dear Dr. Wall,' she wrote, 'I would just like to thank you for all that you are doing for my son and all the boys. I wish I could be there. My heart was broken when Scott was imprisoned but now my heart is breaking with pride as I know it must have been very hard for him to do this. Thank you so very much for turning him into a good man.'
Thus it was that our work celebrated the global redemptive POWER of literacy within its two-act, two-hour traffic of the stage. WHEN YOU HEAR MY VOICE theatrically championed Shakespeare and other motivational forces in a vast multitude of tongues.
Music became an inter-active character much as we now know it had been in Shakespeare’s own theatre. This was realised through the inspiring grace of FIVE extraordinary young British composers, (Craig Adams, Christopher Hamilton, David Hewson, Stephan Hodel and Gareth Peter-Dicks). Here EACH championed proactive co-operation and collaboration. Fifteen songs wrought from differing musical imaginations were seamlessly sewn into a celebratory theatrical union. Indeed, Christopher Hamilton’s amazing title number had itself been prologue for the previous year’s Tim Williams Awards, mounted by LSW in memory of our late Musical Director who had, himself, been key to so many successful prison projects. Lyrics were drawn from pens such as those of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eric Bogle and a host of others. Additionally, our production included a heady selection from a vast canon of original offender, ex-offender and outside lyrical writings. Each had been inspired by the Bard and was originally inscribed within the bounds of any number of global LSW workshops.
The very opening of THIS production was generated by each and every one of the Corradino lads themselves, They'd been inspired by a short poem written by one of their British brethren, Mark. In fact, he'd written it in celebration of our original developmental sessions. The staging of that entity was fostered in my absence under the keen eye of the truly magical Marc Cabourdin. (You’ll find a diary entry I wrote on first seeing this segment here.) Marc would prove himself to be one of God’s artistic angels on the Maltese earth. There is no question but that this project would NOT have been possible without his own and his Canadian business partner, Wesley Ellul's, zeal and creative acumen.
Still the one unifying force that made ALL of THIS special was that it was WITNESSED through the eyes, ears and mouths of a multinational collection of young offenders. Together they rendered the thrilling air of enchanting engagement that LSW had not seen IN TOTALITY since our first major production of Shakespeare, The Wax King (Henry VI, Part III) inside Her Majesty's Prison Pentonville. As had been the case with Rounding Shakespeare at the California Men’s Colony, these lads succeeded in removing a little of the mystery behind their magic so as to better share the joy of this new-found gift with all.
With rapture they did so here in front of their ultimate stake-holder; the Maltese tax payer. The President of Malta, himself, attended one performance. On that occasion, as protocol demands, everyone rose as he entered . The Maltese national anthem was dutifully sounded, here sung acapella by a participating inmate.
At the END of EACH performance, however, ALL audience members - as one. They would do so VOLUNTARILY. They would spring to their feet in celebratory salute. They did so here to honour the work itself. Of course, THAT was NEVER mandated. The lads themselves would always applaud back. (That aspect had, in fact, been rehearsed and is part of the LSW tradition.) 'This is by far the best production I've ever been to,' Sarah Craig would note on the TAC Facebook event page so kindly created by Marc and Wesley: 'So deeply moving; a true and inspirational learning experience FOR ALL.'
EVERY person for once was able to see an effective return on their own individual investment.
But why? Why here? Why them?
Perhaps because these lads were, as I told them they needed to be, 'better than good'. They had after all to change minds. Any actor worth their salt knows that feeling. Moreover they had to transport and delight EACH audience member. Had they not done so they would've been merely ‘worthy’ and deservedly soon forgot. That deadly mark of ‘worthiness’ is all too oft pinned onto a vast plethora of unworthy lapels. Sometimes I feel THAT should BE a crime. These lads, however, fairly EARNED their respect. THAT is WHY they will be remembered.
As the old theatrical dictum instructs: ‘Lose yourself; lose your audience.’ These lads bravely held their reins taught.
Shakespeare is, after all - through his own celebration of our universal COMMUNITY - our greatest leveller. These lads stood HIS test. Their focused zeal made HIS words ring out in THEIR relief. For them this was and REMAINS freedom. They own it. No one can ever take that away.
The reality of their detailed and skilful hunger is, of course, one not oft’ felt in our theatre. The reason lies, I believe, in the fact that it can ONLY thrive in that rarefied space Williams defines as being ‘between the bed and the chair’. It must BE dangerous; it must BREATHE adversity. That remit is not always easy to replicate. Some places are just TOO safe for real theatrical significance to inspire.
For a brief but magical moment these young men allowed themselves (and therefore all of us) to forget that we, too, might be imprisoned in our own minds. They’d found a key and they were willing to share their escape.
Further, they did so legally and in front of the admiring glances of a bevy of officers. These lads did not simply redefine themselves. They helped ALL to forget that this particular array of young men were in fact physically incarcerated within a penal fortress built by the British in 1860. With just reason their walls tumbled down. The only thing that would swing here was our communal imagination. Joyfully, we can all safely be OUTSIDERS within the boundaries of the Shakespearean estate. Within those walls even the most cowardly can, should they choose, risk taking an enormous flight of fancy. With the likes of a Joanne Battistino about, the HOPE is always there. That HOPE reigns and REMAINS supreme.
‘The guys’ (as I’m all too fond of calling them) held, as t’were, Shakespeare’s own mirror up to a substantive nature. They would not – in the true ‘Bardish’ sense - be hoodwinked. As one review had it: They were ‘Raising Men to the Divine’ and as another proclaimed, they did so‘Straight to the Heart’.
‘I’m glad I got arrested,’ Solomon would say. ‘It gave me a chance to do this.’
The key members of our 'brotherhood' - young offenders all from around the globe - were joined in this endeavour by two Maltese inmates from the adult prison who marked out characteristics such as I have come to discover define the national DNA of a vast swathe (but certainly not all) Maltese citizens. One, Emmanuel, is known locally as something of a recording personality; the other, Andrew, once lived in Scotland and has played football for Malta. Suddenly they too found themselves - on those occasions when they discovered sufficient where-with-all to attend on time if at all - actively ‘stuck in’ to Shakespeare.
Joining them were four very talented local teenagers who, in several instances, stole weeks away from their own A-Level studies to share in this uniquely historic education. These were very different kettles of Maltese fish. Their dedicated commitment paid obvious dividends. ‘My life’s changed forever,’ insisted 17 year old Alex, (who had, himself, when nine suffered the rigors of a brain tumour’s removal).
These ‘happy few’ were, as per LSW tradition, abetted by a small mixture of proud professionals. Here represented by the wondrous British singing actress, the exquisitely talented Laura Pitt-Pulford and two fine young British composers serving as Musical Directors, the aforementioned and ever inspirational Christopher Hamilton and the keenly gifted David Hewson. ‘I’ve been trained to wear masks,’ Laura would later say in the company debrief, ‘You guys don’t have any. I’ve learned a lot from you.’ As it was we ALL learned from each other.
All were unified by a team of the most extraordinary collection of prison officers it has EVER been my privilege to meet. ‘Sir’ Michael, who himself had taken part in the initial workout, daily cooked an ever-changing but always amazing feast for the assembled ‘outside’ throng as well as a final celebratory luncheon for ALL! Moreover, he would joyfully toast each and every birthday with a uniquely styled cake; ‘Sir’ Martin, the head of the YOURS’ security detail – a man whose own brother is incarcerated in the adult prison – defined both fairness and commitment in his own person. The respect for ‘Sir’ Edgar; and for ALL officers – each, here, a dedicated police officer - was palpable. Why? Perhaps because each would play their own pro-active part within the shared success of the whole. ‘This has taken ALL OF US out of ourselves,’ Sir Martin would say . To paraphrase Tennyson, ‘they strove, they sought, they found and yet did not yield.’ Even now my heart shouts: 'Bravo' They too are testament to Joanne Battistino's uniqueness. 'Brava! BRAVISSIMA, LA STUPENDA!'
Such dividends CANNOT soon be forgot.
Our joint history; our communal saga forged inside this prison LIVED for four glorious performances on the out. It more than answered the original plan’s call. It thrived within the luxurious St. James Cavalier Theatre, a Maltese Millennium project which was, itself, designed by the same British architects responsible for the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond upon Thames. Proudly the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity (SJCC) stands immediately in front of the Maltese parliament buildings and only a stone’s throw beyond Valletta's grand harbour's overlook. The SJCC Director, Christopher Gatt, kindly come into partnership with us. The theatre would be offered for free. It would, I think, prove a wise move.
Never before had the St. James Cavalier Theatre EVER sold out during a week night. WHEN YOU HEAR MY VOICE did so on the occasion of EACH of its four performances. Thus, our production itself made a slice of INDEPENDENT theatrical history; one which I'm confident can (and will) stand alone. PROUDLY it went far beyond the dictates of any one simple ‘prison or judicial precedent’.
Not once was there ever a hint of ‘escape’, (apart, of course, from the metaphorical ones), nor an air of fear, apart from eager anticipation. Heaven knows there'd been ample opportunity. Indeed, one entire performance segment - during which the haunting refrain from Christopher Hamilton's inspired setting of Leah Goldberg's 'Forgiveness' was sung in Hebrew by 19 year old Andre Agius - was performed ENTIRELY in pitch blackness. This had been done accidentally on purpose. It was there, in part, to prove a point. These guys (the vast majority of whom are serving sentences far too long to EVER be considered for participation in a similar 'outside' programme in the UK or USA) were HERE simply having too much fun. They suddenly found themselves being respected in a manner none had never experienced before.
That was, it seems, escape enough. In the truest sense they were no longer MERELY vulnerable.
I feel exactly the same way’, Joseph Zammit, one of the talented outside Maltese youths would reflect during a public talk-back. ‘You guys have taught me HOW to act.’
We are such suff as dreams are made on – William Shakespeare
As FDR instructed: ‘There is NOTHING to fear but fear itself’. It only takes one person; one caring, brave person with a vision and, more significantly a commitment to THAT VISION – (a person like the extraordinary Joanne Battistino) – to realise goals such as have been herein related. 'This project succeeded beyond all expectations,' Joanne would say, ' It’s changed both our prison and our nation’s culture.’ Such individuals are, of course, gold dust. They need to be cherished.
As Sir Alec Guinness explained to me when I was but a young actor: ‘Fear, boy, is, after all, three quarters excitement.’
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep. – William Shakespeare
R B S Wall, April 2012