Pinterian Pauses ...
Text: Shelley Atkinson
8 am, Wednesday. I leap out of bed and crash land on the alarm. Momentarily exhausted by this I slump against the wall and contemplate my day. It is an LSW Prison Project day. So I need to wash, dress, eat, pack and make my way across London to Marylebone station for 10.50 am to meet Bruce and other members of LSW (Sarah, Clare, Oliver, Rupert, Rob, Alasdair, Timothy. Chris we will meet at our destination). I can do that, I think, as I lurch towards the bathroom.
Today we are going to Her Majesty’s Young Offenders’ Institution, Aylesbury. This is our first visit there. On the train we go through some ideas for the workout and Bruce gives us some facts.
SOME FACTS: HMYOI Aylesbury has an operational capacity of 449 inmates, men aged between 17 and 21 who are serving mid to life sentences. Originally built in 1847 it has been a county jail, a women’s prison, an inebriate centre, a Borstal for girls, an adult male prison and a young offenders’ institution.
We arrive at HMYOI Aylesbury. Think Porridge. Bags scanned, bodies metal detected, Dan (who teaches art and sculpture and does counselling) and Liz (Head of Education) lead us to the canteen. Dan is going to participate in the workout. They had the RSC in last week. Lunch, courtesy of the Education Department, food prepared by the inmates. Lovely lasagne. Thank you very much.
Then to the Education block, and a tour with Dan of the art room – some beautiful work on show which he is clearly very proud of – and the kitchen where inmates can prepare their own food.
Prison smells like boarding school. Everything is locked. Doors unlocked before you, locked behind you. One cannot just open a door and walk through it. Inmate toilet cubicles have only half divides so that inmates can be seen.
We settle into our room. It’s a classroom, with blackboard and chalk. We move the tables to the wall, put our bags into a small side room, which is then locked.
Bruce leads us in Felling Shakespeare.
Claire shows me some flamenco. I compliment her. Oliver joins her. I do some surreptitious ballet. Someone is driving a pretend car.
I always have a feeling of suppressed hysteria around this time.
The guys arrive. Great. We move forward to greet them as one by one they come through the door. They look slightly wary. I’m not surprised. We are very enthusiastic. Bruce starts us off straightaway with some warm-up exercises to get us to work together, make eye contact, build up trust in one another. The response, I think, is pretty good for a first session.
We move to the Shakespeare Insult Kit. They get to insult us using Shakespeare’s words and we insult them back in modern English, without swearing. Thrilling for us (e.g., ‘You wart on the hairy arse of a hog’!) but not so thrilling for them. The Shakespearean insults don’t mean enough to them, or to us I suspect, for them to feel like it’s a fair fight and because we are not restricted to set words, we can be personal.
Abdullah takes control. If he’s allowed to use modern English he will insult all of us in one fluent stream!! Oliver picks up the gauntlet. If Abdullah insults us in one fluent stream, Oliver will do the same to them using the insult kit! They both do extremely well. I feel much more insulted than I did in the previous round.
We do other exercises. The workout is fast-paced. We move into iambic. And there is a sense of struggle in the room now. We, the actors, are very much leading, demonstrating. We hurtle on. And then Chiddi, who up to now has been pretty quiet, stops us and articulates the struggle. How are they to understand this language? How is it relevant to them?
We discuss this – it’s a very similar discussion to the one we had at Huntercombe YOI (Young Offenders’ Institute). We talk about rhythm and metre and how they can release the sense of a line, about not having to understand every word, about finding one’s own meaning in the words spoken or read.
We talk about rap. Curtis and Robster get up and rap some text. Chris, Oliver and Rupert read some work written by an inmate at another prison inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Bruce gets me up to recite a sonnet. We are trying to show, I think, that one can own many forms of language, and can find expression, recognition and empowerment in each of these forms and in them all together. I am not sure that we are succeeding.
We sit down to put together a line of Shakespeare that Bruce has cut into pieces, and one of the inmates, unbidden, leans over to me and tells me conversationally what he thinks the line means.
And thus I witness, very simply, connection.
Which turns into ownership when we start to write our Witslings. The two guys I am working with take a line of Shakespeare each. One uses his as a title for his verse and the other as part of his verse. And these are now their lines. They have connected with them, are inspired by them and they own them, so much so that it comes as a shock when someone else in the group has chosen the same line for their verse.
We have to finish up very quickly after this. For some reason we have slightly less time today than we usually have. The guys leave the room. Each of them is patted down in the corridor on the way out. We collect our stuff, put the tables back, make our way back to the entrance, say goodbye to Dan, Liz and Chris, and off to London we go.
It’s all very bizarre. Before I visited any prison, I knew in my head what it was. Still to be there, to walk from the outside through the entrance and into that enclosed space where one cannot see the town or the fields, where everything is locked up, where all kinds of freedoms are curtailed, where one is separated by more than just a wall – this is very strong. It is a stronger punishment than I ever considered it to be.
I feel that the day has been successful. The boys/men we met were on the whole engaged and at times led us and made demands of us and asserted their equality to us. I look forward to going back and working with them again.