On July 5th I went to prison for the first time in my life. HMP Pentonville.
One by one we passed through security doors, into the inner-outer courtyard, then into the main building and then into the interior courtyard that connects all the wings together.
It seemed like a scene from Guardians of the Galaxy (a hilarious movie) with prison cells built along 4 or 5 floors with boat-like materials, heavy stairs, heavy doors, not much light. (The aforementioned movie is no longer as funny)
I realise now – We pack humans like cows when we put them to prison – and treat them like chicken.
The prison is a prime showcase of where we fail as a society.
However and aside from long and extensive criticisms I’d be tempted to state here regarding our prison systems, upon meeting the prisoners at the library – for a few hours – the darkness of these walls escaped us.
Bruce Wall shares the gift of language, through Shakespeare with inmates of prisons around the world.
He makes it a point to ensure we as visitors and volunteers keep the energy high throughout the day, encouraging and supporting the inmates.
Some are shy, like V, a typically shy introvert who has been in this prison since after his escape from his previous prison. Some have been at a previous workout, some have a long time left – or a life sentence to complete – in this prison. Some have tired voices, one sounds like Morgan Freeman.
Regardless of ethnicity or background, these inmates are equally participating in this Shakespeare Workout.
Regardless of which language they originally speak, Bruce brings them in, with movement and ensemble work – and then encourages us to listen to our heart. To our heartbeat. To the rhythm of our blood flowing through our body. De dum de dum de dum de dum de dum. This is the heartbeat of the English tongue. This is his very passionate and sweaty Introduction to the iambic pentameter.
After playing various games and exercises, all using Shakespeare verse or scenes – the inmates and participants are all invited to write, within the final minutes, a few lines in iambic.
And some of the words shared are genius. Some of the words we didn’t hear I presume are even better.
The will and motivation of these prisoners, their perspective on life and their expression through their new iambic poetry teaches us, in the end, more than we teach them in these sessions.
The entire workout, goes by in an instant, an instant of Shakespeare, shouting, singing, flying paper planes, and laughter.
And then, it’s over. And yet these inmates, these prisoners, these men – these human beings, on their way to the dry holes or cells – these men, thank us, as we thank them for participating, and leave, with more energy than all of us combined, each one, with a smile, leave the library area where we have met.
We then leave.
I then have enough thinking to do about prisons for a lifetime.
One conclusion I draw immediately. Shakespeare and the mastery of language is freeing. Engaging with it in this environment, close to necessary.
Thank you Bruce Wall, for running this wonderful workout. Bruce does a service to society – and society shouldn’t forget those hidden behind tall walls.
I apologise for the abruptness of this post.
For more information about Bruce Wall and the LSW check out http://www.londonshakespeare.org.uk/
London Shakespeare Workout (LSW) Prison Project, a fully registered national charity with the Charity Commission of England and Wales (No. 1084717)