Sub Umbra Alarum Tuarum
(Under the Shadow of Your Wings)
Text: Paul Gorman
Artwork: Lawrence Mathias
I had no idea what to expect. Bruce had provided us with little information about the workshop itself other than to be warm, open and share your enthusiasm during the workout. The perfectionist inside me usually would be quivering in fear at not knowing the exact itinerary of the day, but it only spurred me on and kept me on my feet.
The tube was as dreary and cold as the wind that blew several metres above us. People looked isolated, even if they brushed shoulders with one another. Eyes glued to phones, headphones stuck to ears, heads rolled back to ease the pain which they ostensibly found themselves in. People looked like they wanted to escape, to run away from the situations which they found themselves in, they looked without purpose.
Leaving the old Caledonian Road tube station, I made my way to the coffee shop down the road that was to be our meeting place. There I met Bruce for the first time, a man who was as kind, warm and as passionate as the emails he wrote, and got acquainted with the rest of the acting troupe, all who were the same mixture of tiredness and excitement as I was. Once we were assembled we began the short walk over to HMP Pentonville.
When Bruce announced we were there I couldn’t quite believe it. To the side of the main road, it appeared more like a bulkier fortified town hall than a prison. What baffled me was how so out in the open it was. No big gate barricading people out, no tall watchtowers surrounding the perimeter, just an old tarnished white building surrounded by a couple of pubs and cafes. It slipped into modern day life without drawing too much attention to itself, despite housing over 1300 inmates. The entrance itself was a bustling hive of activity, people weaving in and out of doors and archways to get to their respective jobs. It wasn’t a cacophony of mayhem but rather a force of precise focus as people scanned ID badges and searched bags, said brief “hellos” and went on their way. This official behaviour added to the sort of coldness that clung to the walls of the prison while offering a juxtaposition were the jubilant guards who stood relaxed as they made jokes and personal remarks to familiar faces who breezed by.
After we slowly but surely were cleared for entry to the prison and searched meticulously by the guards, I had brought only my jacket and wallet so felt particularly naked in this seemingly unforgiving environment, we then found ourselves in the outside courtyard of the prison. The walls surrounding the courtyard seemed to soar upwards to the sky, yet instead of clouds, barbed wire swirled at its apex. One of the actors, Keiton, started to joke about how he had already began thinking about his escape plan. He joked but we were all thinking the same thing. Our brains had a whiff of imprisonment and had already began thinking of ways out. Reunited with our other half, who had been held up due to a bureaucratic kafuffle which our wise prison staff rep, Jose, kindly overcame, we then pressed on and made our way into the main body of the prison.
The prison is one hundred and seventy-eight years old, and walking inside it I would have found it hard to believe if it looked any different from its grand opening. White bars rose upwards showcasing the many levels the prison had and the walls were painted a whitish-grey to mask its age. It felt cold and hollow, despite the aftermath of activity from freeflow. Prisoners of all ages stared at the young group of actors that had entered their residence, but it was not a gaze of hostility, but rather of curiosity, most likely wondering why the hell we were here. That was something I noticed during my visit to Pentonville; the entire time I felt safe, I felt secure, there was no concern of danger whatsoever, yet that state of vacuity and algidity followed me as I walked through the prison’s atrium and seemed to cast itself within my mind. We were then taken up a level to what I took as the education suite where we would host the workshop.
The room was as barren as the prison itself, bar a couple of tables and a few chairs and a window that ran the length of the room gazing out to the rest of the prison. This was to be our Globe. Our artists Lawrence and Zulaa, two lovely and remarkable people who would document the morning’s session through their talents, took position at two of the few tables within the room setting down their parchments and tools. After dropping off our belongings, we gathered as a troupe and began devising games we knew. Soon after the brainstorming began, we had our first member walk into the room. He stuck to the corners of the room, nervously glancing from side to side as he made his way towards us at the back of the room and sat down next to a row of chairs. Bruce was the first one to speak welcoming our first participant to the room, followed by us extending our welcome and introductions. We learned that his name was “Absail” and the first sentence he said to us was, “I’m not the only one coming?”, anxiety and nerves ringing high in his voice. We as a collective assured him this would not be the case and tried our best to ease his worries. Silence then followed. His concerns didn’t seem to be washed away just yet so I piped up with, “Have you ever done this before Absail?”, he shook his head, “Neither have we, we have no idea what to expect!”, he cracked a smile and the others began chipping in with jokes about what they expected from today’s mysterious workshop. Soon after, more members of our Shakespearean troupe began to join as freeflow slowly came to a halt. We continued to introduce ourselves, found out where we all came from, (some of the London boys gave woops and whistles when they discovered they were from the same areas), and we soon gathered ourselves into a circle. What happened next was a transcendent experience I will remember for the rest of my life, an experience that I will feebly attempt to put into words.
Bruce began the session capturing the attention and minds of everyone in the room with a recitation of the Bard’s words. You forget how powerful, moving and emotive Shakespeare’s language is until it is spoken to you and at that moment Bruce had us in the palm of his hand. After this followed various games of moving around the room and connecting with each other, with also a friendly hint of competition thrown in as well. One of the games involved us following Bruce’s commands, commands which he personalised to the group for example discovering that one of the lads spoke Somali, so we used Somali words such as “eegid” for “look”. Barriers began to break down, we were no longer two separate groups but instead working together as an ensemble.
We then followed the games with beginning to look at Shakespeare’s text. We began with a discussion about the bard himself with Bruce asking questions to the group, and while we actors stood quiet shamefully unknowing to the facts, the lads themselves were quick to answer. The same could be said for the majority of the session, the boys were so quick to answer and the intellect and understanding on show was outstanding. They were so focused and on top of what we were doing that I was constantly picking up pointers from them! The discussions also paved the way for humour and there was one boy beside me in particular whose witticisms and jokes continuously had me in hysterics. This was one of the many moments where I temporarily forgot where I was and felt transported to a new place. It was as if we were in a drama workshop with friends, no barriers, no trepidations, just a group of people with a sense of freedom of expression and the ease of having a good and positive experience.
Bruce then launched into an exercise which focussed on using Shakespeare’s arsenal of insults, concentrating on using focus, our voices and also our own objective of trying to make the other group laugh. Another exceptional gift that Bruce had was making the environment we were in and the experiences the boys had relevant to the task at hand but channelling it into positive energy. For example, in this exercise when you were not throwing the insults at your fellow player, the rest of your group acted as your ‘hype man’ and used phrases that were tossed about in prison such as “Let’s go Freeflow!”, egging on the opposing team. We were transported again, this time to a football match or to the Colosseum with our voices booming!
Speaking of ancient Rome, one of the final exercises took us to the Roman Forum were Bruce chose two of the lads to read text from Julius Caesar, Brutus and Marc Antony trying to win over the people while the rest of us acted as the enraged and emphatic masses. One the boys was Olivier, who had a keen interest from the very beginning of the workshop, always bringing focus to each of the exercises and pouring a lot of his energy into each task. This was his time, and by God was he going to take it. He walked up to his podium, a chair from the back of the room, and sang his text to the willing chorus who rose to his defence and chanted his name as he laid out his terms. Olivier threw us a smirk at the end of his speech, he knew he had won us over.
It was now up to Marc Antony. Our Antony was the boy from the animal exercise, his eyes lowered to his text as he took to his chair. You could see the hesitancy flicker in his eyes again as he begun the text, retreating to the safe place he knew, when all of a sudden Bruce gave a passionate shout of encouragement trying to bait the Roman soldier out of him, we all joined in with calls to our son of Rome. Sure enough, he answered. He began to call out, spitting out his words and using the emotive, manipulative and pathos-infused language Shakespeare had written to win over his audience. The lad, the lion, the king, his Marc Antony roared. It was thrown back to Olivier who stood astounded, realising he had an even tougher job to do! And so it was a tennis match, a battle to see who would be the patron of this great city. Their voices were the ones soon commanding the space and we were but happy spectators to their energy and power.
This was to be the finale of our workshop but Bruce was notified that he had an extra twenty minutes, so he quickly stitched together an old Peter Brook exercise that involved the scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream when Lysander and Demetrius try to win over Helena’s heart. Bruce had given me the part of Lysander, Sophie who was one of the actors played Helena and the boy who spoke Somali was to play Demetrius. It may have been the impending tiredness that began to creep on me and take over my mind but I couldn’t for the life of me process and remember the lines Bruce was trying to feed me! This got a few laughs from the lads and hysteria from me as I couldn’t fathom simple Shakespeare. Sophie too struggled a bit with hers but managed to scarcely string the sentences together.
It then came to our Demetrius who nailed it in one. I kid you not. Me and Sophie have six years of training between us and he got it in one. I made a side joke of, “Well I guess that’s early retirement!”. He absolutely knocked it out of the park as well, using dry humour and wit to try and win over his Helena. He took ownership of the language, made it his own and used it to incredible effect, this took me at least three years to even come close to perfecting! These boys not only had knowledge and a hunger for performing, they also had talent, and it was both awe-inspiring and a privilege to be a witness to it.