Text: Zeb Soanes
I had no idea what to expect. I imagined degrees of how uncomfortable I might feel or how difficult it might be to control and maintain focus throughout the workshop. Having taught fairly privileged young people in a South London Youth Theatre and public school environments I had no misconceptions that this would be very different. It was. It was a greater challenge. Some people’s literacy levels were very low and extra care had to be taken to ensure they did not feel excluded.
I didn’t know whether The Mount would be a great Victorian monster of a place or somewhere stark and uninviting – actually it looked more like a sports centre and had people been filing out into the car park carrying gym bags and squash rackets they wouldn’t have looked at all out of place.
This particular Prison Workshop was being filmed for the PVM [Prison Video Magazine] to share the work of LSW throughout the UK Prison network. After lunch we went over to the worship room, a large, bright space where the actors readied themselves. One by one the inmates arrived and I was struck by their retiring, tentative approach to the room. How many of these are just turning up for a doss, I had thought before they arrived, but that was soon banished from my mind. There was an eagerness in their faces, something they had been looking forward to; perhaps for some, coming because they knew it was ‘good for them’. I was struck by their humility and genuine heartfelt welcome as many of them, spotting me as a newcomer, came to shake hands and ask questions.
Bruce began the workshop. The film crew caused interest to begin with and the cameraman asked if anyone, for whatever reasons, would rather not be featured in the film and several men said they would rather not. The first exercise was ‘pass the clap’ and with the film crew still a novelty some people kept popping their heads into shot or making gestures, but by the end of the workshop you would hardly have known they were there – the work, or rather the ‘play’ had become more important.
Pass the clap was tricky, they were having to make and hold eye contact with one another and us. The group was VERY large and at this stage unfocused (probably largely due to the film crew), there were pauses where any momentum dissipated and some were unsure if the clap was directed to them or a neighbour and others seemed blithely oblivious. The Theatre de Complicité exercise which followed introduced rhythm and you could feel energy and playfulness growing.
We spent some time working on the Shakespeare Name Game – a great way to really let your imagination loose to break down a word. Language is fun and shouldn’t be a barrier. I worked with an inmate on the name ‘Bardolph’ playing with ‘sinking a pint’, followed by the fin of a dolphin or Rudolph’s red nose or describing the figure of Bridget Bardot, followed by the dismissive sound ‘Fuh!’. We went around the circle sharing and copying each other’s descriptions of our names and you could really sense their appetite for play, enjoying with glee the increasing inventiveness of each others characterisations.
The Shakespeare Insult Kit was great fun: facing a line of inmates then stepping forward, Western gunslinger-style, to hold eye contact with a single inmate and call them a ‘mouldy, swollen, goat bollock’ (or whatever!) and for them to laugh back – good morale-boosting stuff. Again I was struck by their dignity and support for one another and imagined taking the same workshop at any average secondary school where I am sure the weaker links would be made fun of and there wouldn’t be such common respect and strength.
Some actors and inmates had worked together in more detail during a morning session and we watched a couple of scenes they had prepared. Great presence was shown by Benson, Gavin and Craig, and even those who weren’t quite as confident as their braver fellows looked on with hungry interest.
Sadly there wasn’t time for ‘Clumps’ but we played with iambic pentameter and Sarah-Louise Young gave a beautiful and spontaneous singing of Puck’s ‘If we shadows have offended’. She could have simply played it to the room, but she took it to the men, involving them directly in the text – I was very impressed.
There wasn’t time to go into great detail in this session. We were giving an overview of the work of LSW to be recorded and shared with other prisons around the country.
The great theatrical veteran, Barry Morse, gave a very effective talk about Shakespeare, demystifying the hard, elitist academic veneer, revealing the ordinary man from the country making his way in London. Shakespeare’s work was ‘for the people’, Mr. Morse cajoled. He is satirising authority and pomp to the ordinary people who were subject to that authority and his most profound, heart-stopping lines are paradoxically the most simple and uncomplicated. Barry gave examples from King Lear as he carries Cordelia’s limp body onto the stage repeating the single word, “Howl” and of course, Prospero’s ‘Little life rounded with a sleep’.
The key thing I felt these sessions can achieve is to show the power of the spoken word to express and inspire the universe of human emotion; whether to raise an army or comfort a dying lover, it is empowering them to dream and language is by far our most effective weapon, the effects of which can be timeless; one need only think of Churchill, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandella with the proof, of course, in a single line of Shakespeare: ‘To be or not to be …’, ‘All the world’s a stage …’
By the end of our time together the occasional lack of focus witnessed in our opening exercise had given way to an almost blasé boldness. Once we were underway I almost had to remind myself that these were offenders; we were a group working together with the sole aim of enjoying ourselves as much as we could in the time we had – a time to play and to learn and perhaps help some find a new focus. As the session drew to a close and the wardens urged the men to make their way, their gratitude was quite overwhelming and I was aware how VERY privileged I was to have met them and in no time at all we were back outside in the ‘real’ world, smelling of mortality.