Text: Timothy Mitchell
Woodhill was my first LSW Prison Project experience and going up on the train I recall the mix of emotions which at the time I was not able to qualify or give a name to. Reflecting back they were, I suspect, a ‘stew’ of the following:
Fear the dominant force I suppose for all the obvious reasons, for I confess, naively, this was my first time within a prison. Self doubt, for even here I was subject to those vain ‘actorly’ concerns about how I might ‘perform’, how I would stand up against other experienced LSW Prison Project artists. Finally lurking underneath, I confess was my more persistent doubt about whether this project could work.
Bringing Shakespeare’s vision, imagination and liberty into a place of little freedom and independence seemed a wonderful notion, but I was deeply unsure about how it might work in actuality. How would a group of predominantly white, middle-class, well-educated actors create a level of trust necessary to work with a group of largely working-class, poorly-educated, ethnically-divergent young men?
Over the two hours, I got a glimpse of how this might happen.
I remember Bruce leading the group in a short lesson in iambic and I now recognise the enormous significance of this. For me it underpinned all the work we aimed at. In patting the ‘de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum’ on our chests, prisoner and performer were learning to speak the same language and therein the commonalty of our purpose was expressed.
From this point it seemed their distrust of us subsided while our curiosity gave over to the spirit of learning from each other. We became united in speaking and enjoying the Bard’s language. Shakespeare it seemed was allowing us to speak in confidence and without self-analysis. He was our interlocutor.
The riches of these sessions I am absolutely certain are cumulative and the greatest achievements are made by building the work over several sessions. However today I felt represented a glimpse of what might be achieved. I realised how Shakespeare’s greatest gift – his words – might be a glorious source of emancipation in a world of scant liberties, where only the imagination remains free. If nothing else I felt I could appreciate how the words of arguably the greatest imagination to have ever lived might within this context be so liberating.
I left feeling the seed had been sowed – the spirit of Shakespeare had been imbued in all – perhaps for the first time. Maybe there will be the opportunity to nurture it further.
There were many memories. In particular, I recall Pat, a Scottish chap, reading his carefully crafted poem with such relish and passion. I recall too Matthew sparring like Muhammed Ali whilst acting out his Witsling and the spirit of excitement and fun this created. But it would be wrong to single out mere moments in this session for the session itself was characterised by the spirit of learning and creativity present in us all.