Text: Nicholas Rawlinson
Huntercoombe. A beautiful sunny day in an idyllic setting: heart-warming English countryside. A railway station that could have been the setting for The Ghost Train, an old fashioned market town, woodland, a pub, a golf course. And an HMYOI. It was, if nothing else, Shakespearean. Forest and court, sun and shadow: all sides of England at once.
Huntercoombe was perhaps not the easiest introduction to the LSW Prison workout scheme one could have had. As Dirk (the Head of Drama) said: ‘If you can face this, then you can face anything.’ Maybe. Certainly the boys who came into the pleasant drama room started the session a long, long way away. They were pressed men, they said, and it showed: classes like ours were for watching, sitting down, distracting each other, certainly not for joining in.
I was prepared, I think, to be surprised, scandalised, endeared, heartened. I was also ready to pounce on my liberal conscience if I could see any signs of it doing that interesting contortion to which it is prone, to turn any slight ambiguity into an advantage. If they said they wanted us back it was because they loved Shakespeare, right? Not that we were better than a maths class and these were teenage boys with a chance to spend time around some very beautiful actresses.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the familiarity of the place. I grew up in and taught at a boy’s school – a highly motivated and some would argue privileged place – but there were similarities, which like line etchings become full pictures. The ‘worn’ look to the teachers, some deeply caring, some in need of instant retirement. The battered common room, from which you issued to cajole people to their own good. The desire to disrupt class – and yet an undertone of (enforced?) civility and respect that was admirable. If only my old pupils could have seen this, I thought. Still, it meant I had some preparation: I already knew that the toughest classes were 15/16 year olds, and of the strange split personality of such classes. As a group they are never less than sullen if not hostile, yet simultaneously each individual is yearning to be seen as your peer. They are all desperate to fit in, and teacher baiting and being disrespectful are their ways of doing this, yet such behaviour is also motivated by a desire to be seen as different, as individual. Often the most withdrawn are the most able, and you have to be understanding of the noisy, be they articulate, unfocussed or, simply, noisy. This peculiar mix frequently means that while what you do may be having a great impact, you will almost certainly have a hard time recognising it.
This split was in evidence almost immediately. In Zip Zap Boing, renamed ‘Happy/Scared/Mellow’, some of the ‘cool’ kids who at first didn’t want to play began to see that they could make their mark by showing that they understood the rules of the game and subverting them. At one point someone, instead of passing on ‘Scared’ turned to the group and said of the supplier: ‘No way, I’m not scared of him’. Likewise in the Name Game some showed the courage to be clever – offhand, but clever – in their presentation of their ‘name’. When I did something exaggerated I was asked if I was on crack. These lads know a lot about courage and cowardice, but not the courage to play; to be daft surprised them. They needed to see that to be an individual could mean not having to impose yourself, just be yourself.
There were setbacks and successes in the same moment – the insult game produced some individual wit and bravery, and the same time making a few of the recipients feel a little bemused, and perhaps embarrassed. Efforts to get people involved met with rebuff and the chance to write in iambs produced some obvious chances for obscenity. But there were also the triumphs. The absolute stillness that accompanied Bruce’s rendition of a Witsling. The engagement with the drama and fun of Celina and Alastair’s magnificent reflection session. The confidence some found to repeat lines of Shakespeare in front of each other and the Governor. The willingness to work together to produce short scenes, even if they were unwilling to perform those scenes in front of others. Signs, hopeful signs, that some time in the future the notion that ‘Thought is free’, so happily repeated, will come to mean something more.
A tough introduction? Possibly, and all praise to the regular contributors who worked so energetically and cleverly to encourage the boys to join in, even when rather overwhelmed by the numbers in attendance. A stunning, eye-opening experience? Definitely. And worthwhile? Not just certainly, but essentially. The train ride home with everyone was reaffirming and supportive, but the biggest surprise came when I was finally on my own on the Underground. That battered, aggressive, defensive, cocky, opportunist, narrowed, demoralised look that the boys had entered the room with, and many had lost by the end – that was all round me, in the commuters crowded on Platform 2. The world, it seems, is indeed a prison, in which there are many wards and confines, and it is up to us, – ‘the stuff that dreams are made on’, – to help.”