Shakespeare Behind Bars


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Shakespeare Behind Bars
"Stirring and creatively wrought"

Shakespeare Behind Bars is a program running at Luther Luckett penitentiary in La Grange, Kentucky - one of 60 educational programs, to prepare the prisoners for life on the outside. You could argue, what does Shakespeare have to do with living a productive life?

The film has been directed by Hank Rogerson in a superb argumentive effort to answer that question. Of course, it says nothing of the interesting characters taking part. The Shakespeare program attempts to reveal the mysteries of his plays to the inmates and, while volunteer director Curt Tofteland selects appropriate plays and nurtures the prisoners' talents, he does not pretend to have all the answers. Indeed, he merely has more questions and strongly encourages his "students" to find answers within the text and their own lives, enriching knowledge and self-awareness. It also argues that Shakespeare rewards careful and passionate study.

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This is not a film about the horrors of incarceration. It depicts a sample year in the program, during which The Tempest is selected as the play, with obvious parallels between Prospero's island and Luther Luckett. It is ironic, perhaps, that through an outsider's eye, we can learn what makes these men tick and what crimes need forgiveness. The harsh lens and malleability of Rogerson's footage creates a startling look and feel for those willing to spend their time on self-improvement.

The inmate, cast as Antonio - the delightful, sly, conniving master of destinies - describes the feeling of redemption at being "set free", his soul cast aside from the shackles of guilt. His idea of redemption is that someone, anyone, might be able to look upon his life and balance it, which is doubtful, considering his crime was "sexually abusing seven girls". Likewise, Hal, cast as Prospero, wears his face as a mask, struggling to find his character. He was imprisoned for electrocuting his girlfriend, after learning that she was bearing his second child.

The actors, tutors and assistants draw deeply from their own experiences. The acceptance of the inmates is likened to probation, with the group judging their abilities. Many performances are high volume and over the top, bellowing the audience back into their seats with sound and fury - if you recognise the quote, you know the rest! - but they don't last.

By far the most likeable and endearing are the old hands, who help to develop the new actors, like Red, cast as Miranda. The scene where the group questions him about his past and how it relates to his role is one of the finest moments in the film, although the prisoners often repel the viewer, with their complaints of the parole board, whining about their lack of a "second chance".

Other fascinating and delightful scenes include the judicious inspiration of an R&B climax, using "the passing of the storm" as a way of closing the film and play, using the text as a goldmine. It is so stirring and creatively wrought that, just for a moment, they (and we) feel liberated.

Reviewed on: 18 Aug 2005
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Shakespeare Behind Bars packshot
Murderers and rapists perform Shakespeare and learn forgiveness.
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Director: Hank Rogerson

Writer: Hank Rogerson

Year: 2005

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US

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