A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to Pentonville Prison in Highbury & Islington to work with a group of actors and artists that are helping inmates rehearse for their Christmas show in December. This was all organised by the fantastic Bruce Wall, chairman of the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project. The play they performed was an amalgamation of Shakespeare’s speeches and sonnets, extracts from the Bible, alongside influential quotes from individuals such as Mohammed Ali. The result is a beautiful mosaic of language, performance and character with an underlying passion for community and freedom.
Arriving at the prison is an experience in itself as you slowly move through locked door to locked door, becoming disorientated as your connection to the outside world begins to dwindle; until you finally enter a valley of metal. The caged, grey interior was exactly how I imagined it to be, akin to how it looks in TV and film, yet it seemed eerily quiet as an overriding coldness stiffened the air. However, just as we reached the room we’d be holding the session, a line of inmates came down a set of caged stairs to our right and a couple shouted Bruce’s name, delighted to see him. Bruce strolled over and exchanged pleasantries, discussing this afternoon’s rehearsal and asking each other how they’ve been. An intimidation that had dominated the journey into the prison suddenly weakened as I was reminded how human these people were.
The consistent “how you doing?” or “you alright?” questions that repeat themselves in everyday life seemed just as common here as the outside world. Of course, I don’t want this to be interpreted as a naïve sentiment in drawing too many similarities between prison life and life outside these walls as of course there are obvious and important differences. I think Bruce put it best after I asked how long some of the inmates’ sentences were, replying “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” There was mutual agreement that I was here not to judge, nor to forgive, but just to work and to bring as much passion, interest and determination into the rehearsal as the inmates brought to their performances.
During rehearsals, we all sat in a semi-circle and read through sections of the script as people stood up and experimented with voice and physicality when we arrived at their scene. We first looked at the prologue in which an MC-esque character greeted the audience and introduced the piece. As the play was very aware of itself, conscious that each actor was an inmate and much of the audiences would be comprised of people involved in Pentonville, the MC character could be compared to a prison guard. Bruce encouraged the inmate reading to directly confront the audience, both ordering them to listen while respecting their attention. The speech was a demand, asking the audience to play their part in the coming production.
This is akin to many Shakespearean monologues in which the actor explores the existence and principles of the stage such as “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It) or “A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” (Henry V). Pentonville’s play opened “Switch off distraction and their ploys”, asking the audience to focus and play their parts. A constant theme of the piece was collaboration and community; thus, this emphasis on collaboration between audience and performer was important to Bruce and the inmates.
An element that astonished me during this rehearsal was everyone’s absolute focus. It sounds obvious, but no one was distracted by their phone or focused on something happening outside, every individual was almost always concentrating on the task at hand, and when not they were bantering amongst one another. While in rehearsals outside of Pentonville, you sometimes need to work to create focus and muster collaboration, here it came naturally. No warm up. No counting to ten. No Zip-Zap-Boing. Everyone just knuckled down to work.
A feeling of community was created within the piece by employing techniques seen in Greek tragedies such as a Chorus that repeated and emphasised phrases throughout. This created a call-and-response between actor and ensemble as the Chorus echoed the end of lines either in forte (strong) or sotto (quiet). For instance, phrases like “Good in Everything” and “Freedom!” were often repeated in forte as the Chorus jumped at the chance to reminisce on a sensation of liberty. Meanwhile, more fragile and delicate sentiments which contemplated on innocence, childhood and forgiveness were spoken in sotto. In general terms, it seemed shared memories of the past were spoken in sotto while mutual declarations about the future were spoken in forte. For instance, a fictionalised version of Mohammed Ali embodied a kind of angel who preached to the choir on the injustices of racism and slavery while encouraging people to follow the word of God in order to seek a better life. The Chorus repeated his inspirational attitude in forte while reflecting on a repentant past in sotto.
It is difficult to discuss this brilliant writing in too much details as I do not have access to the script and all I know of the production is from my experience and memories of being inside the prison. Yet in many ways this reflects the desired impression Bruce and his team were aiming to create. An academic interpretation of the extracts chosen, while possible, should not be the goal of this production. Rather, it is the passion created from each performance as every inmate yells carefully selected extracts of text, but put in a wholly new context with an intuitive purpose. Bruce maintains the belief that, even in prison, everyone should have the freedom of language. Everyone has the right to this language to express ideas, create imaginary worlds and work together to tell a larger story.
Inside the rehearsal, the inmates bantered amongst themselves: teasing each other, the prison guards and everyone visiting the rehearsal. This was never in any way malicious or hurtful but instead casual and humorous. I, of course, am unfamiliar with the general atmosphere and tone of prison life outside of this rehearsal, but it is one I can imagine could be incredibly hostile, lonely and intimidating. I do not want to speak for anyone else in terms of their experience in Pentonville, all I can say is how equal and collaborative this rehearsal felt. It is an experience that I believe must be incredibly important to everyone involved. I know the performance is going to go well and the audience will be moved by each inmate’s passionately personal performance; however, it is the process of storytelling as each inmate comes in to rehearse, discuss and create, that is truly significant. As Shakespeare writes, and Bruce reminds us: “Make not your thoughts your prisons. Thought is free.”