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Curtain is set to go up on bards behind bars

Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

Inmates at the Corradino prison have become “addicted to Shakespeare” and are amazed how acting out parts of the Bard’s plays has freed their prison shackles.

This is a breath of fresh air. I can cry, laugh and sing

An intensive month of rehearsals draws to a close today, as tomorrow a group of about 10 inmates – average age 21 – will be performing live at St James Cavalier, as part ofa project produced by the international London ShakespeareWorkout organisation.

“Initially I wasn’t into this whole idea. My God! Shakespeare! But when I started reading the script I realised I could relate to it and gave me a more positive outlook for the future,” said Jose Gomez, 24, from New York, a young offender at the Rehabilitation Services (Yours)section at CCF.

Another young inmate, Mark Bennett, 21, from the UK, said Shakespeare has opened up new horizons for him. He had never acted in his life before: “Except at school, when I was cast as a tree or a sheep or something – well, I certainly wasn’t Baby Jesus,” he joked.

Mr Bennett said one of Shakespeare’s speeches talks about the pull to becoming addicted – something which transcends time and can be applied to today’s world.

“Funnily enough, the thing I’m addicted to now is Shakespeare,” he said. He said that taking part in this production play – which will lead to a documentary film for global distribution – has broken the tedious monotony of life in prison. “This is a breath of fresh air. I can cry, laugh and sing.”

The mental and spiritual freedom it has given him brought out his creative streak: he has been writing lyrics and even wrote the introduction to the play. “I’ve learnt that no matter what situation you are in, you can always do something,” said Mr Bennett.

The play is directed by Bruce Wall, executive director of the London Shakespeare Workout which holds drama workshops in prisons across the globe. Dr Wall explained that the play is an amalgamation of different Shakespearean plays such as Richard II, Macbeth, Henry V and Cleopatra. It also includes writings from inmates from all over the world, and extracts from Tennessee Williams and Anne Boleyn’s writings – set to different and original tunes, beats and tempo.

Dr Wall told The Sunday Times that the actors had made the play theirs: “They are now ready to start living it and enjoying it,” he said.

Yours residents from Malta, UK, Ethiopia, US, Estonia, Spain and Portugal are taking part. For several of them, this has been a verygratifying experience.

“I couldn’t conceive the idea that there are good people out there who genuinely want to take a chance on us. It’s allowed me to change and believe,” said American Frank Mejia, 22.

This has even improved camaraderie: “We depend on each other all the time while we’re acting, and that has made us a lot closer as a group,” said Mr Mejia.

Justo Bellver, 21, from Spain, said he was reluctant to join at first: “I thought it was going to be dead boring, but then it started making sense, and suddenly it’s fun. My English is not good – but it certainly has improved in this last month thanks to Shakespeare”.

Andrew Formosa, 27, is the script and backstage manager. “This was completely new to me but it has given me a huge boost and helped to put things into perspective.” All people involved laud the professionalism of the production.

“There were no divas. And the acting of the inmates is so unbelievably good that we had to up our game,” said Andre Agius, 18.

Dr Wall will be in Malta to oversee the project till the last filming day next Sunday. As he barked his last directions, the look of pride was etched on his face: “They are … extraordinary,” he beamed.

When You Hear my Voice is on at St James Cavalier between tomorrow and Thursday. Tickets from www.sjcav.org.

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