'Stress' & 'Desire'
laser beamed by 'Laughter'
Diary Entry by Annabel Capper
HMP Cookham Wood, 24th October 2001
It was a letter, hanging on for dear life to a notice board at the Actor’s Centre that started it all. My involvement with LSW, that is. The words of an inmate who had taken part in a Shakespeare Workout saying how it had changed his life, altered his vision and moved his soul. As one who is always looking out for life changing, vision- altering and soul-moving experiences, I immediately contacted Bruce Wall, eager to know more.
Three years on, I feel like I have been through many experiences with both Bruce and LSW, but was still yet to count a Prison Project as one of them (time, work, dates and circumstance had always conspired to keep me away on any occasion I was asked to participate). So it was with great excitement and a hint of nervousness that I made my way to HMP Cookham Wood, a women’s prison in Rochester, Kent.
It didn’t take me long to realise that if I wanted to be changed, altered and moved, I had found the perfect place. The openness and excitement was tangible from the moment the inmates met the actors. If, by using the terms "inmates" and "actors" I suggest a kind of segregation, I do a disservice to the atmosphere of the group. An atmosphere of togetherness, joy and appreciation of the Humanity that is Shakespeare was the pervading one. Certainly no "us, and "them". The group mingled and blurred into one being almost instantly. Then the magic began.
Sending "laughter" across the room, as a kind of laser-beam, to defend yourself against "stress" and "desire" (words chosen by inmates to use as they wished), certainly had the most amazing effect, whether it be demonic or tearful. It was in fact infectious, and bled into every piece of work. Truly magic moments for me where the Helena, Demetrius and Lysander Love Triangle, given a new twist by a truly instinctive, comic and inventive inmate, (Glyn) as Helena, who was genuinely perplexed to have such fools hanging from her ankles! Did this scene lose any sense when played as animals in pre-historic times? Not a bit; it merely heightened the desperation and cunning in all of them.
I loved the "Midnight Express" extracts, both from the novel and the screenplay. To watch someone waiting to be sentenced in a dock gained new poignancy, words seeming more urgent, and the intention behind them, crystal clear.
The highlight of the day had to be, the performance of an inmate’s (Clare) writing. This inmate, sitting quietly in the corner, was unaware her work (an extract from her play ‘Goddesses Are Not the Only Women’) was about to be lifted from the page, with life breathed into her unique words. Gayle Hunnicutt gave the most magnificent, malignant performance, and as I watched the playwright’s face became a mask of pure wonder. I was almost as transfixed on this aspect as I was on the acting. She had just discovered: Yes! It was her work! She COULD do it! And how!
A modern Measure for Measure, with inmates as Prison Wardens, ironic but oh, so very honest; Shakespeare's Henry VIII as a tightly wound, accusing misogynist (played in today’s parlance, but found in any century!) and Portia’s "The quality of mercy…" voiced sharply by a New York Attorney placed on trial by her own professional convictions: So many magical moments, each appreciated by all.
If only no "us and "them" attitudes existed outside these prison walls. Perhaps then all that we jointly witnessed in this workout could become in and of itself, (as it was): magic, rare and true. The gifts from the proverbial "them" would become, as it should, a mutual everyday experience for everyone: Just "us", whether we dwell in a cell or not.
2000, Stage, Hobby, TEECHERS, Storyville
Productions, Matt Grist