Ripping Open

Text:  Gwyn Evans


I never expected to find myself in the drugs wing of Rochester Prison with a prison warden ripping the plastic cover off a drugs test kit right in front of my eyes. Along with the rest of the LSW group, I was being given a tour of the prison by the warden, a mild-mannered and very good-humoured man called Les. A few of us stood in an empty cell, but we were subsequently stopped short of walking the whole length of the corridor – buzzing with the sound of radios – as the prisoners liked their privacy, and the prison staff were keen to respect that. The first thing that struck me about the Oasis Unit at HMP Rochester was that the wardens seemed genuinely to care about the prisoners. Yet I could not have imagined that later that afternoon both prisoners and wardens would be laughing as they taunted each other with Shakespearean insults and some modern-day equivalents. 


I was apprehensive, this being my first workout undertaken at Her Majesty’s Pleasure with Bruce and the gang. But any fears were dispelled when it became apparent how friendly and genuine the prisoners were, all of them eager to greet and introduce themselves to the LSW group. We started our session in a circle with a few energetic games – from charging across the circle avoiding being caught, to attempting to avoid reciprocal eye-contact with each other. I had the ill-fortune to be out first time with the latter game, but I wasn’t cursing myself for too long as the afternoon was proving to be quite pacey.


Making lots of noise is always fun, and the release of visceral energy with rhythmic sounds and movements at the start of the session got the group laughing together and began to break down any barriers of nerves.


A couple of wardens had come from another wing especially to join us that afternoon, which was pretty cool of them. The group continued to warm up considerably as the opportunity presented itself of using the Shakespeare Insult Kit – the prisoners with a script of interchangeable Shakespearean terms, and the LSW actors with nothing but their wits to rely on. I hope that this is the only time that a failure of imagination will prompt me to call someone a yellow-fingered piece of radiator paint. But for the first time in LSW history the tables were turned, and the prisoners asked to be the givers of the freeform insults. The imaginative abuse that confronted us from the prisoners standing opposite thankfully put my radiator paint insult to shame. There is something very empowering about not having the script in this game, and it was good for this role-reversal to have taken place.


The group’s rewriting of Hamlet’s poor Yorick (poor David Beckham) and Macbeth’s dagger speeches with modern names and adjectives replacing Shakespeare’s was an amusing prelude to an investigation of iambs involving much chest-beating and chanting. It was apparent that everything from the superficial to the profound could be spoken in heartfelt five-beat lines. Then, starting with a chunk of Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis, we were challenged to continue Shakespeare’s lines in our own words to express our own feelings and thoughts. With various individual and collaborative contributions ensuing, what followed was an array of wildly different verses. Subjects from the intense to the bizarre came up as everyone in the group shared what they had written. Such situations as the comical discovery of an ex-girlfriend’s new-found lesbianism, the frustration of a nagging partner, the love for a husband and a statement of intent to make the most of the future following prison came up in the poetry that the group wrote. The poetry came easier to some people than it did to others – the guy I was writing with pointing to his head saying there was too much going on in there to write anything today. But even those, including him, who were insistent that they couldn’t or wouldn’t write anything ended up contributing a line or three to the resulting poesy.


We did not have time for ‘Clumps’, but the group finished on a high, with a quick set of two-line plays being performed around the circle. I felt privileged to have met some people who I may never have met in the normal course of my life, and it was great to see how much talent there was among the prisoners at Rochester. As we left the prison, one of the prison workers called to us from his car that this was the most fun he had had in ‘absolutely ages’. It was wonderful to have been part of something so positive, and it was great to have had the privilege to see a tiny segment of life in prison. I hope that wardens and prisoners were moved as much by the afternoon as many of LSW members were.