Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005)

Jake Meaney

Hard truths, hard times. Prisoners find revelation, redemption, and forgiveness in the words and wisdom of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Director: Hank Rogerson
Cast: Curt Tofteland, Hal, Leonard, Sammie, Red, Big G
Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Philomath Films
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2006-07-18
UK DVD Release Date: Available as import
The rarer action is

In virtue than vengeance"

-- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

It's no happy accident that The Tempest was chosen for production by Shakespeare Behind Bars, an inmate theater troupe in the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Lagrange, Kentucky. The play -- commonly regarded as Shakespeare's last, and one of his most complex -- orbits around the twin foci of revenge and forgiveness, also pulling in such common themes as sin, guilt, redemption, and the rift between illusion and reality. Deliberately selected by volunteer director and troupe founder Curt Tofteland for just these very aspects, The Tempest represents a further step in a recent progression by the troupe through such other moral heavies as Othello, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus.

For all involved -- the participating prisoners, the idealistic prison warden, the film's directors, and the troupe's director -- the practice and performance of the play is less an aesthetic endeavor than a mining of the soul; a journey into the dark universal heart of man that Shakespeare illuminated so starkly 400 years ago, with the hope of emerging at the other end with a better understanding of their crimes, and thus set on the road to redemption. And after the initial shock of seeing these hardened men, convicted of the most brutal of crimes, delivering these immortal lines with profound recognition and affect, wears off, you'll realize that there might not be a more fitting setting for Shakespeare since the days of the Globe Theater.

Tracking the production of the play from initial casting (which the prisoners do themselves) to the final performances several months later, the film is less concerned with the final product than the process itself, a point that Tofteland emphasizes in the rehearsals. This is where the real work happens, and the richest rewards are gained, where we witness the deepest soul searching and emotional upheaval, as the men grapple with their inner selves and one another to come to terms with their pasts and recast their futures. You get the feeling that they aren't so much reading and memorizing these lines as articulating something that had always lain dormant within, only needing the medium of the Bard to free those previously ineffable thoughts and feelings.

So with all this emphasis on the struggle of dredging up understanding and epiphany in rehearsals, it's a bit surprising, but perhaps appropriate, how little screen time is given to the actual final performances. They are rather hastily recapped in a final montage, and overlayed with music that drowns out most of the lines. This omission of the final perforamnce almost feels like a dismissal of the project in a way, but again, the overriding concern here has much more to do with the possible personal redemptive power of the truths embedded in Shakespeare's words, of the interplay between the text and prisoner, and the prisoner with himself, than with the play (so, I guess, the play is NOT the thing, in this case). And somewhere in the convergence of all this -- the lines, the dialogues, the "acting" out of their sins -- a window is opened for introspection, self-forgiveness, and ultimately some sort of metamorphosis takes place.

It's a noble intention, to be sure, though ultimately it's hard to judge the result. As is de rigueur for documentaries of this ilk, Shakespeare Behind Bars is comprised largely of interviews with several prisoners, most of them troupe veterans of several years standing, and even longer veterans of the prison system. They are, to a man, an articulate, introspective, and disturbingly sympathetic lot, conversing with the filmmakers (and the audience) with an agreeable candor, which only makes the almost casual revelations of their heinous crimes -- ranging from armed robbery to child molestation to multiple homicide -- even more of a shock when they come.

With little context other than the few months' span of the film, it's hard to assess properly what effect, if any, their education at the foot of Shakespeare has ultimately had on these men. A few seem imbued with indefatigable hope; of spiritual freedom, if not actual freedom yet. Others seem to lapse back into previous behavior and end up in the Hole, or transferred off to a higher security prison. In this highly specified setting, we generally only see the men at their best, and haven't seen them as they were, or as they are when attention is diverted. Where does the “performance” (of the roles in the play, and the role they have assumed for the film) end and actuality begin? Are our sympathies evoked but a victim of the same sort of enchantment that Prospero wields on his enemies? And does conflation of actual guilt with the profound, yet of course still contrived as constructs of Shakespeare, help a prisoner along the path to contrition? Or does it further bolster latent denials?

It's hard not to be troubled by these sort of despairing questions while watching the film. And yet there is a current of genuine optimism coursing beneath it all that is hard to deny. Though the film is not explicitly activist as in, say, Paradise Lost, it nonetheless makes a very strong case for both the redemptive power of art, and an even stronger case for rehabilitation and redemption as the true end of the penitentiary system. I wouldn't call the film explicitly Christian in the least bit, but an overall moral tone of mercy and forgiveness suffuses every frame.

One particularly erudite prisoner, Leonard, seems to sum up the moral and spiritual dilemmas facing the prison system most succinctly when he laments, "Those who need mercy most, deserve it least". Genuinely humane in face of unspeakable crimes, Shakespeare Behind Bars offers a subtle yet forceful commentary on the sort of reactionary penal philosophies that have resulted in a system that seeks to solve the universal human problem of crime by destroying any vestiges of its humanity. By tying these men and their crimes into the eternal flow of the human condition, the film forces us to acknowledge that (as Leonard again put it) “If there’s no forgiveness in the world, there’d just be moral anarchy. There’d be no order”.

And if the final cut of the film (distilled down to a lean 90 minutes from over 700 hours of footage) seems to wrap up a bit too hastily and tentatively -- a standard "where they are now" montage of the main prisoners closes out the film after the all too brief shots of the play -- the excellent, if also a bit too brief, extras address some areas where the film is lacking; for example, a few of the prisoners’ backstories are further filled in and given context. In particular, we learn more about Hal (who plays Prospero), about his crime, his years of evasion, and his ultimate confrontation with the enormity of what he’s done. This turns him at once into an even more tragic and monstrous figure. We are also treated to more footage of the play in action, both at the Luther Luckett Prison, and out on "tour" at a women’s correctional facility.

Though an additional disc of an entire performance would've been the perfect counterpoint to the film, the scenes we get to see are fun, lively, and revelatory, and make a strong case for the redemption sought, and reinforced by The Tempest's immortal final lines: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free."


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