Article by Mick Kitson: Milton Keynes on Sunday; 8th August 1999

Bard Labour:
Woodhill Inmates get down to some serious graft
                         in prison workshop.

In Shakespeare’s day actors were considered the lowest of the low. The theatre was popularly thought of as being a place of violence, sex, passion and spectacle. It was wholly frowned upon by polite society, attracting the dregs of the Elizabethan underworld both on and off the stage.

Shakespeare’s fellow actor and rival playwright, Christopher Marlowe, was killed in a Southwark tavern after a row with other actors over who should pay the bill. These lowly roots were pointed out to 18 prisoners during the London Shakespeare Workout’s visit to the Education Block at Woodhill Prison.

This ground-breaking project, bringing Shakespearean performers to the prison to hold workshops with the inmates, has been granted Arts Council cash and has won praise from educationalists and prison reformers alike.

Milton Keynes on Sunday sat in on a session of the ‘Bard Behind Bars’ this week.

Veteran stage and film actor, Barry Morse, told a group of prisoners: "In Shakespeare’s day actors were outsiders in society. The theatre was considered a place of sin. Actors formed themselves into fellowships because they felt rejected by society, rather like you."

The session began with a warm-up with the inmates stretching and vocalising alongside the actors. Then the performers performed a bawdy song, put together by one of the inmates, with everyone joining in the chorus, ‘Lower your drawbridge and I’ll enter your keep’, etc., to much attendant sniggering and open laughter.

Workshop leader, Bruce Wall, explained to the inmates that Shakespeare frequently used language "as a weapon", perhaps the most effective one ultimately, and proceeded to animate the rigour of the five stress verse form, iambic pentameter, which Shakespeare used.

"It’s like a heartbeat," he said, beating his chest, "It goes: I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM". It has a rhythm all of it’s own, much as in rap."

Everything the Workshop does is designed to make verse accessible to everyone. The inmates too took turns to insult their visitors using Shakespearean terms of abuse and the guests slung back with modern day equivalents. The effort that drew the most laughter was undoubtedly: ‘You big, hairy, revolting dog’s bollock,’ uttered in perfect iambic rhythm.

The inmates then took turns to speak a line from a Shakespearean play with the actors responding with the following one in order to build up confidence in the open exchange between them. Everyone then in a circle, the actors begun coming into the centre performing segments of entire speeches inviting the inmates to join them as foils. One tattooed prisoner stood motionless, entirely rapt, as actress Rachel Morris caressed his head while performing a speech from The Winter’s Tale.

Splitting into groups, the prisoners invented their own Shakespearean verse using lines from a piece of text which was distributed. These were then enacted for the delight of all. One scenario, fittingly, encompassed a prison visit with each inmate playing the role of a fellow prisoner as they spoke the lines: "Touch but thy lips with those fair lips of mine," one said; "Locked up in a cell all alone I lie," imparted another only to be followed by a third expressing: "Without my dreaming freedom I shall die".

Bruce Wall said, "Something magical happens in these sessions. Inmates begin to understand their own power in the use of language through employing its rhythm."

One prisoner taking part, Paul Gargill, 23, said: "It’s about proving you can do it. It makes you feel good about yourself to get up and succeed." Another offender taking part, Shane Henderson doing time for affray, added: "It’s exciting working with real actors. I’d not done Shakespeare before." HMP Woodhill Education Officer, Shanie Jameson believes that workshops such as the London Shakespeare Workout play a vital part in prisoners’ reform. She said: "Doing this gives them a sense of self worth. Self esteem is a very important factor in offending behaviour. It also makes something accessible to them that they may never have experienced before."

Before the session ended, Rachel Morris turned, extemporaneously, to the group offering a segment from a speech from The Tempest: "Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it ...."

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