Prison Shakespeare captivates Wooroloo inmates

The offender in the green jacket played the characters of Oberon and Peter Quince, while the prisoner on the right played Puck for appreciative audiences at every performance.
Prison Shakespeare captivates Wooroloo inmates
The offender in the green jacket played the characters of Oberon and Peter Quince, while the prisoner on the right played Puck for appreciative audiences at every performance.

INMATES at Australia’s largest prison have wowed audiences with their production of a popular Shakespearean comedy, months in the making and part of arts rehabilitation initiative.

Acacia Prison in Wooroloo was the unlikely venue for five performances of A MidsummerNight’s Dream that ended on Sunday.

Perth Playback Theatre artistic director Zane Alexander said the prisoners’ performance was among the best he had seen.

Another reviewer described the production as “pure magic”, while a second said “never has the transformative power of theatre been so apparent and so keenly experienced”.

Prison operator Serco said the 90-minute production was the result of the first, full-time performing arts program in an Australia prison.

Shakespeare was the playwright of choice because of the educational and academic value in the language, providing a significant challenge for the offenders.

“Be as thou wast wont to be” was among the many lines delivered to the 86 prisoners in the audience and their families.

Perth actor and educator Nichola Renton said the 25 prisoners involved had no previous acting experience or exposure to Shakespeare. During coaching sessions, she noted how the offenders carried feelings of guilt and worthlessness.

She described the offenders as men who along the way had lost, or not been given skills to promote themselves in a healthy way.

Her actors in training committed to eight months of rehearsals and daily workshops, where they engaged in social interaction skills and performance training.

Prison staff gave their support and sewed costumes for the production.

Serco director Nick Cameron said the arts program was about reducing re-offending and increasing chances of job interviews and employment on release.

“The unmitigated success and positive feedback we have received from visitors, staff and prisoners shows this kind of activity does contribute towards offender rehabilitation goals,” he said.

During performances, prison staff observed the respect shown by prisoners in the audience for the courage of the actors on stage, particularly towards those who played the female roles.

Mr Cameron said the success of the production rippled throughout the prison, renewing interest in the arts program and the next production in 2016.

“It may seem like a luxury to do this sort of educational activity, however it is a way to engage some prisoners with learning for the first time.

“It’s then the gateway to dealing with issues of numeracy and literacy,” he said.

The play also provided other opportunities for offenders to learn about the behind-the-scenes work of staging, lighting and music.

Willetton Senior High School loaned a stage and will receive the gold coin donations from the audience.

The offender who played Oberon was on standby for the part, but took over the role and learnt his lines five days before the first performance.

A prisoner who played Puck intends to study drama at university on release.