Prisoners find that all their world's a stage: A production of 'The Tempest' is changing the lives of some inmates at Maidstone jail. David Lister watched them in rehearsal

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'MOVE one step back when Prospero greets you,' the director said to the actor playing Gonzalo. 'You're surprised to see him alive, so you reject his embrace. But just one step . . .'

'Any more and he'll be over the wall,' Alonso muttered to Sebastian, grabbing a quick smoke in the wings. Escaping this island could be beyond even Prospero's powers. Warders with alsatians patrol the perimeter wall throughout the rehearsal.

Something remarkable is happening at Maidstone jail, in Kent. Prisoners, some serving life for murder, and most of whom have never seen Shakespeare before, are staging one of his more difficult plays, The Tempest, in a collaboration with the English Shakespeare Company.

Rehearsing for nearly two months before putting on four performances next week, the venture has taken over their lives. To the astonishment of warders and other inmates, a number have asked spouses and friends to cancel visits during rehearsals. One prisoner has cancelled a home leave.

Part of the Booker prize winning novel Sacred Hunger features rehearsals of The Tempest in which one of the cast challenges the director to a duel. But the Maidstone rehearsals have provided even more drama.

In an early rehearsal there was a fight between two cast members when one laughed at another's diction. And even now, days before the first performance, the life of the ESC director, Tim Carroll, is made uncertain by cast members being 'ghosted' (moved to another prison in the dead of night). He is now blooding his third Alonso.

The brainchild of Carole Winter, the ESC's education officer, the performances (one to sex case prisoners, one to other inmates, one to relatives and friends and one to the local community) are part of the company's policy of extending Shakespeare to all parts of the community. She has even found a sponsor.

The director, Prospero and Miranda are ESC professionals. All other parts are played by prisoners, who have made the scenery and props.

Claire Kissan, playing Miranda, has inevitably brightened the prisoners' lives. 'About five guys have fallen in love with her,' Chris P, who plays a spirit, said. 'You've got to remember they've gone several years without being close to a woman.'

For Hector H, who plays Ferdinand and has to act being in love with her, there is another problem. 'I have to say all these romantic lines. When I told my missus I was doing it she went potty. I said some of the lines to her on the phone, 'As I hope for quiet days, fair issue and long life, with such love as 'tis now'.

'She said: 'What] You're saying that to another woman]' But I think she was impressed really.'

Tim Carroll has decided to make Prospero's isle a prison, and it is hard not to be transfixed as cast members in one scene bang on the walls, their eyes blazing, shouting 'freedom, freedom'.

But watching rehearsals it is noticeable that the director makes few concessions to the nature of the cast. 'Where the bee sucks, there suck I,' Ariel said, suitably impishly. 'Sing it,' Carroll said. 'But there's no tune to it,' the actor replied. 'Aaaah,' he cajoled, 'there's no tune and of course you couldn't possibly make one up.'

Carroll explains that he has no intention of being a social worker and is not interested in drama therapy. 'They didn't want a Sunday school teacher, they wanted professionals, so I'm sure they wanted us to be professional with them. But it is nice when you see people's faces light up.

'My problems have actually been the reverse of what I expected. People said at least I would have a stable cast without holidays and the like. But in fact it's constantly been changing.

'One man absconded this week while on home leave and a few others have been ghosted. And I've found that status is terribly important in prisons.'

The two comic drunken louts, Trinculo and Stephano, perform with panache though. Indeed Stephano, unkempt, and with tattoos covering his body, looks more naturally the part than any I have seen. Another noticeable aspect of the Maidstone ensemble is that it is a more multi-racial Shakespearean cast: whites, blacks, Sikhs with turbans.

It would be foolish to pretend that every prisoner is seized with a love of Shakespeare. Of the original 33 who auditioned, several dropped out and the cast is now down to about 15.

But the prisoners' reactions demonstrate the usefulness and enjoyment of the exercise. 'Shakespeare isn't really for me,' Chris P said. 'I like acting but I like the more up front stuff, and I do sort of feel good doing it.'

Simon, who plays Caliban, adds: 'I read Shakespeare at school, so I'm enjoying it and it makes the days go quickly. I shall be sorry when it's all over.'

And Chris R, who plays the bosun, designed the programme and alerted the Independent to the production, says: 'What I'm saying is 'look, we've done wrong, we're being punished but we want to show we can still do something worthwhile'.'

Brian Pollett, who is the prison's head of activities, said: 'I was a bit concerned about Shakespeare. I thought it might be a bit too heavy, but my fears were unfounded. The prisoners get a break from an otherwise boring routine, an appreciation of Shakespeare and a lot of self-expression.'

(Photograph omitted)