Shakespeare in prison | The voices from inside

An international theatrical event will allow inmates to perform a play at St James Cavalier between February 6 and 9.

Clockwise from left: Frank, Justo, Paco and Scott – some of the inmates who will be performing at St James Cavalier next week.
Clockwise from left: Frank, Justo, Paco and Scott – some of the inmates who will be performing at St James Cavalier next week.

The prospect of heading to prison on a gloomy winter day is not appealing at the best of times. Even if - as my photographer and I are informed just as we pull next to main entrance of the Corradino Correctional Facility - you're meant to be in the Young Offenders Division, and not to answer for any crimes but to interview a group of prisoners who will be performing a play at St James Cavalier next week.

When we finally make our way to the designated area - which overlooks the appropriately desolate 'Gaddafi Gardens' - I remain unsure of what to expect.

Billed as an international, inter-ministerial collaboration (the full list of entities would take up too much column space), When You Hear My Voice will allow young prisoners to perform a play at St James Cavalier, Valletta between 6 to 9 February. But beyond the fact that the play will include extracts from William Shakespeare's oeuvre, I know nothing of the prisoners themselves, or of the training they've received.

Walking through spartan corridors separated by turquoise doors (I can confirm one cliché: that of the sluggishly-sliding security door, opened by a portly guard at the other end), we are greeted by a smartly dressed British gentleman, who beckons us into a small room where we can meet the team as they record a radio interview. It turns out that the gentleman is Bruce Wall, director of this initiative, whose passion for the project is easy to spot.

"Shakespeare should be taught standing up, not sitting down. Prisoners need to remember that no matter how many keys an officer may hold, this language is something that belongs to all of us. It is all of our birthright," Wall says.

You get the sense that these motivational nuggets are a mainstay of this London Shakespeare Workout project, run in collaboration with The Corradino Correctional Facility.

The first thing that strikes me when I meet the young offenders - or 'residents', as they are euphemistically referred to by the local coordinators of the project - is that they are a truly international bunch (as luck would have it, the Maltese members of the group are on court duty on the day).

It's rehearsal time, and they launch into random selections from the performance - which will be made up of Shakespeare extracts as well as works by other canonical writers... along with, crucially, a selection of works from inmate writers from across the globe.

The rehearsal is rickety - as all rehearsals are - and the setup appears to be programmed so that the amateur actors help each other out at every step of the way (each monologue is accompanied by a chorus).

But it's clear that the group are ready to face an audience. The anger in some of them is evident, but though diction is less than perfect at times, it is a filtered anger - the kind that's been refined by diligent practice.

But when I finally sit down to speak to the assembled group, the vibe is anything but angry. The group are happy to speak about the process. It's also funny how some of them conform to national stereotypes.

The Americans, in particular, seem to be happy to explain things in some length - one of these is Frank, who immediately sets himself up as the group's unofficial spokesperson.

"None of us would have ever done this before," Frank says in no uncertain terms, with the group revealing that none of them had any previous experience of drama.  "It's thanks to Bruce that we're all here - he's been working on this since last September, and when he asked us to perform we were all hesitant, but all of us said yes in the end. I mean none of us had any drama training, and let alone in Shakespeare, which takes it to a whole new level. When we came face to face with Shakespeare's language, it was just appalling - especially to those of us who don't have English as a first language!"

His colleagues nod in agreement - especially the non-English-speaking ones. All of them, however, seem to have benefited from the experience. "Instead of screaming at myself, I scream through the script!" says Justo from Spain.

In a lot of ways, working on the play seems to have compensated for an education they seem to have lost, or been deprived of, in the past.

"The education aspect of this is also a great thing. I don't know about the rest of these guys, but I dropped out of school at a very young age, and this has given me an education in written and spoken English that I've never had before. I actually enjoy writing a lot, but now that we've tackled Shakespeare I've learnt a lot more words that I could use," Mark, whose poetry will also be incorporated into the play, says.

Jose, another American participant, agrees with Mark that conventional education may not serve up an ideal model when it comes to teaching drama, especially Shakespeare.

"When we did Macbeth in school it was very vague: we were just told: 'here, read this' and nobody took the time to break it down and explain what all the words meant like Bruce did.

"I actually prefer Shakespeare to the other plays we're doing alongside his because once you get over the language, there's so much stuff you can get into..." Jose says.

As we talk, I never get the impression that I'm speaking to prisoners. Rather, they come across as young men gearing up for an exhilarating time at the theatre. There is no sense of defeat or resignation in their voices - just a touch of nervousness, that mix of adrenaline and fear that comes with trying something you've never tried before.

"The aim of this is to show people that there's a lot more to us than people might think," Frank says, adding that he looks to the show's premiere with a mix of "nervousness and excitement".

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