FEATURE: Shakespeare Across the Divide

BY ROMANO MULLIN

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When it comes to Shakespeare, the first thought that comes to mind is rarely prison, or for that matter, Northern Ireland’s very own HMP Maghaberry. But it’s just that kind of connection that Belfast’s Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) seeks to make. By joining the words of one literature’s greatest voices and the experiences of some of the North’s most troubled groups, the ESC hopes to bridge the divide of social marginalisation in our complex, post-conflict society.

The ESC was established in 1999 by Tom Magill after his time at the English Shakespeare Company, and the encouragement of that organisation’s director, Michael Bogdanov. While the ESC began by teaching Shakespeare at school workshops, thanks to Peace II funding, it soon moved into filmmaking. A crucial part of the ESC ethos is to use drama and film as a way to change lives and tackle social exclusion, as well as emphasising the therapeutic and rehabilitative effects of the creative process. WHAT IT DOES

The ESC’s first foray into feature film was the award winning Mickey B, an adaptation of Macbeth with a distinct twist- it was filmed on location in HMP Maghaberry with a cast made up

almost entirely of prisoners and prison staff. Praised by supporters such as Kenneth Branagh, who said that Mickey B was ‘an important work that speaks eloquently’, the ESC was not without its critics. One tabloid complained that the project rant the risk of making movie stars out of criminals. As an ex-prisoner myself, I know from first-hand experience the waste of time and potential that happens when people are warehoused in prison. For me, making Mickey B was about unlocking the potential of prisoners and using their often negative and violent pasts in a creative and positive way, creating a radical transformation through Shakespeare.

Following on from Mickey B, the ESC has continued to run projects that tackle the difficult world of those who suffer exclusion in today’s Northern Ireland. Their recent project, Second Chance for Change delved into the world of mental health and the criminal justice system, giving a group of men with a history of offending and serious mental health issues the opportunity to look at their lives and tell their stories. The project aimed to help each person move further along in their own journey towards recovery, and was the focus of a recent showcase event at the Skainos Centre in East Belfast, which had among its audience Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.

Using the experience they’ve gained from working with prisoners and the production of Mickey B, the ESC is hoping to continue engagement with schools and universities. Their recent release of a Mickey B education pack hopes to prove to students that Shakespeare isn’t just ‘crap, old-fashioned, hard to understand and boring’, but can be made to come to live in their own world, and through their own experiences.

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