Text: Alison Mead
The sun was shining. The world became a smaller place as we entered into the prison on Thursday. We were in the multi-faith room; a wonderfully light and airy space and by the end of the session we were all aware that the residents were also multi-talented.
Enormous enthusiasm was found for the opening ‘rhythm’ exercises as well as a lot of laughs (amidst a small amount of understandable hesitation) when throwing ‘sound balls’ in reverse.
Then we got onto Cinna. Here was Complicité at its finest. ‘Twas the murder of Cinna the poet from Julius Caesar. Lines were read out by various, randomly-picked actors and residents, then sounds and crowd noises were added. (We even introduced ‘Rhubarb’ as an actor’s tool!) The recipe was mixed and refined. Repetition of key words like ‘tear him’ as well as scorn at the mention of the word ‘capitol’ and a very modern reception at the word ‘bachelor’ was met with sneers and more rowdy noise.
The rhythm became terrifying and intense as the crowd shouted against Alasdair’s protestations that he was Cinna ‘the poet’. The crowd closed around with a stamping movement, reminiscent of a death from Lord of the Flies, and then there was a fine moment as the crowd fell silent.
The horrible realisation dawned. We had killed a man. Suddenly, en mass, the crowd dashed to another corner of the vast room, some of the women squealing in their horrified flight of fear.
Suzy remained over the body. Slowly one of the inmates began to enact a measure from one of the opening exercises as if it was a communal plea. The crowd slowly advanced as one in a new-found solidarity of purpose.
The body was taken away triumphantly. It was lifted aloft above us all in a rhythmically dignified ceremonial procession led by six – very tall – residents. (They really are very tall when you’re only 5’2″.) The scene concluded with our own applause for each other which lasted several minutes.
This was the defining moment of the day for me. Here was a Shakespeare scene enacted by inmates and visitors alike that spoke fearfully to all: Mob rule, violence, a criminal act, an innocent slain.
Still, there was in this enactment a mutual respect and care among all participants that, despite the overabundant energy this scene could – and did – so savagely entice, no harm should come to anyone. We were no longer actors or visitors in a prison; we were part of a company giving Shakespeare to each other as equals sharing his music.
But no respite, no pause for thought was taken. On to ‘Interspersing Shakespeare’ we went. Alisdair and Benson were given a Brixton church as their setting for giving and responding to each line of a speech. The directness of their unrehearsed scene in which a contemporary Angelo took the full measure of one youth’s confessional on Acre Lane in duologue – for that is what it became – was riveting.
Pins may have dropped but none were heard. All were too busy actively listening anew to the lines of Shakespeare and Benson’s dramatically skilful responses. Perpetual anticipation. The air, like the scene, was electric.
Finally the ‘Clumps’ session was charged with the same action and energy being jump-started, as it was, with Portia’s casket speech. As Helen defined each paramour’s attributes – or lack thereof – Rachel rushed about bringing in further ‘suitors’ who responded brilliantly in their many guises. Then Rachel, herself, became Juliet and was interrupted by me as the Nurse, weighing up the comparative points of ‘Romeo’ (one resident, Gavin,) versus the relative splendour of ‘Paris’ (another).
Constant responses from the enthusiastic crowd snapped with one-liners coming in like firecrackers. Almost before it had begun, it was time to ‘vanish into thin air’.
As we said goodbye and the local reporter took photos, the end of the party came down on us like a gentle cloak. I felt I had made real friends in the short time I had been there. I had also brought away something precious with me that can never be tarnished.
Since Thursday I have tried to explain to people I have met along the way what the experience was like. It is hard.
For me it was a unique experience which touched on all levels: spiritual, communal, magical, stimulating and special. It is, I think, a real gift and one that I was privileged to be part of.