Diary Entry by Tom Hiddleston
HMP Pentonville, 20th December 2001
‘You thought you’d found a friend
To take you out of this place…
It’s a beautiful day….’
U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it’s a good place to start. These were the words I heard (in Bono’s [see photo above] euphoric cry) as I sipped the froth off a late morning coffee in a cafe up the Caledonian Road, just opposite HMP Pentonville. And a beautiful day it was. I had walked all the way from Oxford Circus. It was the 20th of December – but the sun, in a rare moment of compassion for its earthly progeny, had its hat on, and the sky was a deep, mediterranean blue. Walking in the sunshine it wasn’t all that cold. In fact, it was lovely. When I saw the bars on the windows of the prison I realised what a privileged position I was in. Just being able to walk in the sun. It’s a cliché, but it brings one’s perspective sharply into focus.
I sincerely believe that the LSW Prison Project brings a little bit of that outside light into the inside. To go back to U2, for one afternoon we were some ‘friendly’ faces ‘to take them out of that place’, not with sunshine, but with Shakespeare.
Bruce had come up to Cambridge to do a student workshop, so I was familiar with some of routine, but I confess to underestimating the overwhelming impact that it has on the inmates. It is truly inspiring. People in Cambridge complain that Shakespeare’s plays are over-performed within the university (there are probably about twenty a year). My day in Pentonville brought home a stark reality: we don’t know how lucky we are.
Once inside, after a quick rehearsal of the afternoon’s routine, the inmates shuffled in. Introductions were enthusiastic and friendly on both sides. No ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the groups merged immediately. For an afternoon, in that little room, with a blackboard on which was scrawled ‘Prisoners Have Rights’, we were just a group of people playing around with words. Bruce got the ball rolling with a round of ‘Eyes Up’, and by the time we got to ‘Bunny’ – in which it is impossible not to look ridiculous – there were smiles all round.
Bruce’s three-tonal ‘dance’ got everybody warmed up. I think that has to be one of my personal favourites. It’s so completely unifying. There’s something visceral and primal in its simplicity of communication – through sound and action. Each group of sounds is so instinctive and expressive and everyone does it together. And after all that’s what theatre is about to some extent: the collective representation and communication of universal emotions.
A hearty chorus of “Chastity Belt” followed, superbly acted out by some of the LSW team in fittingly pantomimic fashion – and warmly received by all. After a good round of insult-flinging (myself completely ‘out-insulted’ by my opposite man), my co-actors (inmates included) and I had fun dramatising some famous quotations on the primary importance of the concept of ‘play’. [Note to Bruce: I’ve since found another one by the way! “The secret to perpetual youth is to keep making time to play” (Voltaire)]. Next, we moved on to the “Dream” exercise. Various Lysanders, Demetriuses and Helenas were given a few lines and their metaphorical ‘love-juice’ (raising many a snigger from the audience) and asked to play out a whole scene, with only those lines. The inmates capitalised beautifully on the comic potential, one of whom chased his Helena endlessly around the circle, entranced and repeating only ‘goddess’ in all manner of intonations, while his opposite Lysander stood centre-stage in disbelieving awe, chastising his Helena with a simple ‘Why?’.
Lastly, we came to what must always be the highlight: ‘WitSlings’. Some of the mini-sonnets that the inmates come up with (in perfect iambic) merit judgement in their own right. They are written with such a truthful simplicity and (often) lyricism that is astonishing. But what was I expecting? I have since told myself off for being so ‘astonished’ – a.k.a blindly prejudiced. The lines that my partner Graham wrote, framed by two Shakespearean openings from different sonnets, deserve quotation. He envisaged a mother and a son, kneeling in a church, whispering to each other:
Mother: No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
For always shall my memory live with you.
Care for your sisters – you are household-head.
Son: Without your guide I know not what to do.
Mother: Fear not, my soul, I will be standing by.
Son: I thank you, and your words do reassure.
Mother: Tir’d with all these for restful death I cry.
This was then beautifully transposed into song by Sarah-Louise Young. Watching Graham’s face as his words were sung back to him was very moving – for him, no doubt, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’.
When the session came to an end, I looked at my watch and realised that four hours had flown by, and that it was now dark outside. We had all forgotten ourselves – all of us, actors and inmates. Marcus, one of the most enthusiastic of the group, came up to shake my hand. ‘Happy Christmas’, he said. ‘You too’, I replied, and then realised what I’d said. But maybe that’s not so bad. There is no doubt in my mind that Bruce and all involved with LSW that afternoon went some way to making all their Christmases just that little bit brighter.
Tom is in his final year of study for his Classics degree at Cambridge University. In his spare time, Tom somehow manages to fit in a theatrical career. Scrawled upon Tom's (ubiquitous) LSW Prison Project form, one filled out during a Cambridge University session within the depths of St. John's College, Tom noted that he 'desperately wants to be a professional actor'. Tom needn't worry. He already is.
2001, Stage, Orestes, ELECTRA, Cambridge Arts
2001, Stage, Romeo, ROMEO & JULIET, Cambridge Arts
2001, Television, Randolph Churchill, A LONELY WAR, HBO Television, Richard Loncraine
2001, Television, Toby Sherriffmuir, ARMADILLO, BBC Television, Howard Davies
2000, Stage, Mitch, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, A.D.C.
2000, Stage, Ishmael, MOBY DICK REHEARSED, Cambridge Arts
2000, Television, CONSPIRACY, HBO Television, Frank Pearson
2000, Television, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, ITV, Stephen Whittaker
1999, Stage, Stanhope, JOURNEY'S END, Double Edge Drama
1999, Stage, Herod/Christ, MEDIEVAL MYSTERY PLAYS, A.D.C.
1999, Stage, Yolland, TRANSLATIONS, A.D.C.