Guardian Unlimited


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The Wax King

Michael Billington
Wednesday February 12, 2003
The Guardian

I'll say one thing: you certainly meet a better class of audience in prison than you do at the average West End first night. At this production of Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 3 in the chapel at Pentonville, I met a former inspector of prisons and spotted an ex-Times editor and several distinguished actors. And rightly so, since the production's blend of theatrical professionals and prison inmates worked at the highest level.

It was one of a series of ventures by the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project, which gets inmates to work alongside skilled professionals in an intense, two-week rehearsal period, and shows how Shakespeare can be used to foster collective self-esteem. But any sense of worthiness was rapidly overcome by the vigour of Bruce Wall's 100-minute production. Played on a large, carpeted open space with the Lancastrians and Yorkists kitted out in colour-coded, red and white prison uniforms, it proved that Shakespeare's histories can work with minimal props and without the usual rivers of Kensington gore.

I also suspect the professionals get as much out of it as the inmates. This production gave Lynn Farleigh the chance to play a genuinely savage, tigerish Margaret of Anjou spitting venom in the face of the captive Duke of York. And a number of upcoming young actors similarly seized the moment. Oliver Senton's "mis-shapen Dick", radiating chirpy malevolence and eyeing up the vacant throne for size, hinted balefully at the future horrors of Richard III. Rupert Mason, taking time out from The Madness of George Dubya, was a suitably shifty Warwick and Julian D'Silva a ferociously carnal Prince Edward.

I would quibble at one or two of Wall's interpolations, such as the pantomimic, "The Earl Grey's widow is just his cup of tea." But what was impressive was the commitment of the entire company and the way a peculiarly savage section of English history, in which kingship depended on brute force, was acted out with a rare passion for language. Clearly prison is one place where people learn to love Shakespeare.