Sunday, April 22, 2007

Shakespeare Behind Bars

"As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.


As I tend to do with these blog-a-thons, I agonized for a while over what to contribute to the Shakespeare Blog-a-thon at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Being a longtime actor, director, teacher and just general "lover" of all things Shakespeare, the number of topics available to me proved virtually endless. I considered writing a piece on the authorship question since there are still some unfortunate souls out there who labor under the impression that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays (a good book I read recently, entitled The Case For Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question by Scott McCrea, further affirmed my stance as a Stratfordian). I also considered writing something about the play often referred to as Shakespeare's masterpiece, Hamlet, because (as I have made no secret) I believe it to be not only his best work but perhaps the best thing ever written in the English language. As someone who has had the opportunity to live his longtime dream of playing Hamlet two summers ago (from which I put up a few pictures here), I thought about posting a list which I've been compiling for a couple years now of every actor (prominent or otherwise) who has portrayed the tragic Prince of Denmark, whether they be male or female, professional or amatuer. From the very first Hamlet (Ruichard Burbage) to the young kid doing it in the high school production down the street, I wanted to try and create a sort of "registry" of Hamlets. Needless to say, the list is far from comprehensive but it is probably the best list of its kind you're likely to find anywhere.

Fortunately, before I got too overwhelmed with potential subjects, I noticed that Peter Nellhaus (the host of the blog-a-thon) referred to it as the "Shakespeare on Film" Blog-a-thon, which made a lot more sense since it's really the "film blogosphere" that is being invited to participate. Although I was rather annoyed with myself for not realizing this in the first place, it did conveniently narrow the scope of my options a great deal, though there was still quite a few topics left on which to write. I thought about writing on one or more of the many Shakespearan film adaptations that I adore (Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet, Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet, Taymor's Titus, Radford's Merchant of Venice, Hoffman's Midsummer Night's Dream, Loncraine's Richard III) or perhaps the many Shakespearean adaptations that I do not care for (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Almereyda's Hamlet 2000, Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, Nunn's Twelfth Night). I thought about writing on the Shakespearean performances that I love (Ian McKellen's Richard, Al Pacino's Shylock, Kenneth Branagh's Iago, Emma Thompson's Beatrice, Campbell Scott's Hamlet) or the performances that I despise (Keanu Reeves's Don John, Jack Lemmon's Marcellus, Calista Flockhart's Helena, any number of the performances in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet). There are performances that, while not great, I think are a bit underrated (Robin Williams' Osric, Jessica Lange's Tamora) and performances that, while not bad, I find are overrated (Olivier's Hamlet, Burton's Hamlet). And all of this comes from just the "straight" Shakespearean adaptations. This doesn't even touch on the parodies, pastiches and otherwise unconventional versions like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, "O", 10 Things I Hate About You, Shakespeare in Love, The Lion King, Looking For Richard, Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story, Strange Brew, She's the Man, A Midsummer Night's Sex comedy, Kurasawa's films, Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare" episode, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's performance of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) and Richard Dreyfus' hilarious turn as the "Interior-Decorator Richard" in Neil Simon's Goodbye Girl. I also felt compelled to give some special mention to Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing as it is the motion picture responsible for causing me to "fall in love" with the Bard in the first place. To this day I never tire of watching that film.

Ultimately my own arrogant compulsion to be unique got the better of me. I realized that anybody could write about any one of these films and/or performances, whereas I wanted to do something radically different. I wanted to do something to set my entry apart from the rest. I wanted to write about a Shakespeare film that nobody was familiar with, a film that I could perhaps draw some attention to because I felt it deserved more recognition that it was getting. That was when I remembered a documentary I watched about a year ago that really struck me as a remarkable look at a side of Shakespeare with which few of us have ever been confronted. It's called Shakespeare Behind Bars and it chronicles a year in Luther Luckett Prison in Kentucky where a program called "Shakespeare Behind Bars," run by Shakespearean director/teacher Hank Rogerson, provides an opportunity for its inmates ("inmates, not "convicts"; they make a point in the film of differentiating between the two terms) to participate in the production of a Shakespearean play. The Tempest is the show selected for this particular year and the story's themes of anger, revenge and forgiveness have particular resonance with those involved. "Shakespeare would love this group," says Rogerson at one point and it's hard to argue with that contention given that the folks of Shakespeare's community were perceived at the time as sexual deviants, thieves, criminals and the like; basically the "dregs of society." Just as Jesus visited not the "healthy" but the "sick" in his day and age, Shakespeare hung out with the ones who were separate from everyone else. The inmates depicted in the film are also the ones seen as the "dregs of our society" today. Thieves, murderers, rapists and drug dealers make up the gallery of individuals highlighted in this film.

One of the excellent aspects of the documentary is that in most cases it familiarizes the audience with the men themselves before revealing their crimes. We get to know them as human beings first and as criminals second. For those who are more acquainted with fictional representations of prison life (such as Oz) this is a very eye-opening experience. These are not "monsters" we are following around here, though it is very easy to label them as such, these are people who are just like us. Thinking, feeling, breathing human beings ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?") who, admittedly, have done terrible things, but who are paying for what they have done. I do not like to use the phrase "it humanizes them" when referring to a film like this and the men in it (or like Hitler in Downfall or Kevin Bacon's character in The Woodsman) because that seems to suggest that they are not human to begin with, that they have "lost" their humanity. Watching this film it becomes all too clear that this is not the case. These men have not lost their humanity; indeed they are all very much in touch with their humanty, perhaps even more than most.

I have seen the film three times now and there are moments that still grab me. Hearing these inmates tell their stories is both harrowing and frightening and yet there is something oddly moving about these scenes because not a single one of them relays their crime without obvious sorrow and regret. At one point one man is asked "So, why are you here?" (a question that was actually inquring as to why he was placed in solitary confinement, but which he mis-interpreted as asking why he's even been imprisoned in the first place) he hesitates, closing his eyes for a long time, taking a deep breath, opening them and admitting "I sexually molested seven girls," before starting to cry and adding "It's the worst thing I've ever done." These are men who are only too aware of the horrendousness of their actions and the consequences to them. They are genuinely grieved by the pain and suffereing they've caused for others and not (to echo the thoughts of Morgan Freeman's character Red from The Shawshank Redemption) simply because they are being punished for it or because someone says they should be, but because they have faced into what they have done, accepted responsibility for it and are searching for some meaning, some hope, some validity to their lives outside of their indentity as a criminal. They don't want their crime to be the defining aspect of their lives and they are trying desperately to make amends, to find something deeper to themselves. The concept of self-forgiveness is one that surfaces quite frequently in the film. Before any one of these men can expect forgiveness from others, they need to forgive themselves. Without this they could never hope to become assimilated into the "outside" world once again. As several of them confess, it is this very assimilation that they seek more than anything else because it represents to them a sort of validation of their own worth. At one point, one inmate admits that althoguh he managed to eventually forgive himself for what he did (he murdered his wife), there is something very "hollow" about that.

The film manages to present these men without excusing, and certainly without glorifying, their actions. The filmmakers adopt a very non-judgmental attitude toward their subjects. They are not here to make these men look any better or any worse than they really are. The disciplined objectivity of the film is very noteworthy and allows audiences to make up their own minds about what they are seeing, though I suspect a person would have to have ice in their veins to not find themselves responding somewhat to the humanity of these men, who couldn't in some way identify with their desire for forgiveness, redemption and acceptance. Watching the film one is reminded of that classic phrase "There but for the grace of God, go I" that so often comes to the fore in some of Shakespeare's own great works. I myself realized watching the film that there is nothing substantially different between these men and me (besides perhaps some of the circumstances surrounding their lives) that would prohibit me from ending up where they are now. I could just as easily commit the exact same crime that they did were I in their shoes. I am not made of "sterner stuff" than they and it would foolish of me to think otherwise.

Finally, there is the show itself. The rehearsal scenes and the final performance present what I would venture to say is some of the best Shakespearean acting you're ever liable to see. Not necessarily because of its technical brilliance, its emotional power or its subtle complexity, but because of its raw, visceral intensity (not to mention its sincerity). Again, the fact that these are men actually guilty of the same things as Shakespeare's characters provides a level of reality that could not be found on any other stage in the world. While most actors can only use their imagination and pretend to understand what it feels like to have committed an atrocity, these men have lived it. To see murderers, thieves and rapists playing murderers, thieves and rapists is a remarkable sight indeed. What is also remarkable is how most of them turn out to actually be good actors, giving performances worthy of any professional theatre company. It is all the more tragic to think that any one of these men could have participated in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland or even perhaps the Royal Shakespeare Company in England had their lives not gone astray.

I want to end this post with a somewhat personal anecdote. For reasons I won't go into, the latter half of my senior year in college was a very tough one for me. I was very lonely, very afraid and very much in pain. It was a time in which I was capable of doing some rather harmful things to others as well as myself. However, with the help of a few influences (my own personal faith, the support of my family and a theatre group I got involved in) I "came out the other side of it all" relatively unscathed. I look back at that period of my life with horror, amazement and embarassment, but also with gratitude and appreciation for those things which helped get me through. Theatre was a huge part of that. I can honestly say that theatre saved my life (interestingly, Hamlet was one of the plays I was involved in at that time). The redemptive power of Shakespeare, of theatre and just of art in general is something one can't help realize watching Shakespeare Behind Bars. William Shakespeare's profound knowledge and understanding of human nature provides an opportunity for these men to confront their own misdeeds and work through them. Almost like a form of therapy, it holds the "mirror up to nature" allowing them to see themselves reflected in his poetic words and characters and turn the painful reality of their own "ugliness" into the sublime beauty of a fine work of art, which is truly something to behold. It's easy to forget that Shakespeare has the power to change lives, to reveal manifold truths and to serve as much more than just entertainment or intellectual stimulation. It can indeed "set you free," which is something that these men want more than anything else in the world. Indeed, I would argue that it's something we all want.


Brian said...

I missed this film when it played theatres here last year; thanks for reminding me to catch up with it on DVD. There's an episode of the radio program "This American Life" which tells a similar story, and it's one of the most moving things I've ever heard on the radio.

mbelle said...

I came across your moving blog entry about Shakespeare Behind Bars. I work with the program and it is indeed life changing work.
I just wanted to let you know that Hank Rogerson is the talented filmmaker, he was the director and writer of the documentary. The program founder, facilitator, and director- who you see on screen in the documentary, is Curt L. Tofteland. He continues to do amazing work with the special men who choose to be in this program. We currently have 41 men released with ZERO recitivism.

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