After mastering the downward facing dog-chaturanga-upward facing dog transition, my isolation development peaked and it was time to do some work. I watched the Donmar Trilogy’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The trilogy was created with Clean Break, a theatre company who work with women who have been in – or are at risk of entering – prison. All three plays were set in prisons with the all-female casts transforming Shakespeare’s classics into explorations of vulnerability, gang-violence, addiction and power.
Clean Break was set up in 1977 by two inmates in the high security wing of Durham prison: Jenny Hicks and Jackie Holborough. Later, they formed a troupe with 19 fellow prisoners, becoming the first British prisoners to perform outside prison. However, they were forced to perform under the condition that they wouldn’t advertise the fact that they were prisoners. Hicks and Holborough pursued the company after their release, offering a support group and skill development. They now proudly advertise themselves as a “a women’s theatre company changing lives and changing minds – on stage, in prison and in the community”.
Henry IV opened at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014 with Harriet Walter in the title role and Clare Dunne as Hal, who in this version is an inmate struggling with addiction. The cast are escorted into the chain link enclosure where the audience await. Audience and inmates are now locked up together: equals. The scene is set for Hal’s words to haunt the corridors of the prison. His promise to change when time demands it could just as easily be spoken by a prisoner as a prince. This promise to break ‘through the foul and ugly mists’ feels unsettlingly empty when confronted with the statistic that 48% of prisoners re-offend within a year of being released. When compared to the 5% of Clean Break members who re-offend, the value of their work can start to be appreciated.
Their work fits into a wider focus on the relationship between arts and rehabilitation which has grown recently, through social enterprises like Gareth Malone’s Aylesbury prison choir, asking age old questions about the purpose of prisons. Is our criminal justice system failing some of the most vulnerable in society? It’s easy (and often more comfortable) to judge those in the criminal justice system and discard them. Listen to just one of the songs written and sung by one of the Aylesbury inmates, or one of the monologues written by 40 members and associates of Clean Break, and condemnation becomes rightfully impossible.
Laura Bates’s Shakespeare in Shackles program provides yet another example of how we stereotype and categorise to protect ourselves with an illusion of order, because we feel threatened by disorder. The transformations of high security prisoners – often those who are serving life sentences in solitary confinement for crimes as severe as murder – demonstrate the power of theatre to provoke self-reflection and offer support in a way that little else can. Bates’s book Shakespeare Saved My Life focuses on Larry Newton, an inmate who had been serving a life sentence for murder in solitary confinement. Convicted at 19, he had served over a decade and needed to escape; he was prepared for suicide through homicide (committing murder to receive a death sentence). Bates began her work at the prison around this time, sharing Shakespeare with the prisoners to see if they could find personal connections with it. Having never heard of Shakespeare before the study, Newton now claims that Shakespeare saved his life – gave him purpose. He has since acted with fellow prisoners and aided in the development of educational programmes to help fellow prisoners and young people at risk of offending. Participants are forced to consider their own motives and choices. Using Macbeth’s speech where he lists reasons not to commit murder, Newton asks “are these reasons related to a sense of conscience—it’s wrong to kill this man—or is it more related to Macbeth’s own ego?” The power Bates has found in theatre just goes to show that its value doesn’t lie in fancy metre or archaic words, but in the vulnerability at its core.
I keep coming back to the fragility of the arts in our state education system when thinking about this. Schools are struggling increasingly to cover basic financial costs to the point where serious curriculum cuts have to be made – my school had stopped offering the drama GCSE by the time I was in year 11 and the lower school got a patchy stint of drama as one of the PHSCE rotations. When forced to choose one or the other, the formal, academic education wins time and time again. The situation is complex, but I wonder whether the enormity of what is lost is really realised. One of Clean Break’s members gives the stakes some perspective: “theatre education is about breaking down barriers, building self-confidence and giving women self-belief”. This is by no means exclusive to girls but countless women I know would benefit from breaking down barriers and having more self-confidence and self-belief. The influence of creativity seems drastically underestimated.
Theatre is hardly a magic wand that transforms lives with a wave, but it offers a lifeline. It offers a chance to explore the self in relation to the world and opens up a network of support that many haven’t ever experienced before. After all, if all the world’s a stage then no one should be denied their role.