By Jonathan Dryden Taylor
I’ll level with you- there’s one worry that won’t go away when it comes to writing these blogs. Despite the wildly diverse places we’re visiting and the people we’re meeting, there’s a kind of similarity about the weeks on tour: we teach some classes, we do some shows, people are lovely to us, we do some tourism. The thing to avoid is writing a column which, with the odd change of nouns, could apply to any week or anywhere.
That’s not going to be a problem this week. The problem this week is going to be to find words to do justice to how overwhelming an experience our visit to the Limestone Correctional Facility was.
The kind of Shakespeare performances we’re used to giving back home usually take place in front of a pre-existing audience for Shakespeare plays. Audiences don’t generally take their seats wondering what is going to happen in this story about someone called King Lear, they sit down thinking ‘I wonder what they’ll do with the storm and the blinding’.
To have the privilege of presenting this play to an audience containing a number of people who had never seen a play at all, let alone the biggest of the lot, was unforgettable. We’ve never done the show to such a rapt, responsive audience. The generosity of their reaction during and after the show was truly humbling.
Lines took on new meanings, or deepened their original ones. Richard’s line in the very first scene, ‘Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here’ rang around the room. The references to justice, and to injustice, to power and punishment, became even more live and more urgent. Tricia’s line about a magistrate and a petty criminal (‘Change places- handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’) resonated even more in a room where we could identify inmates by their uniforms and students by their mufti.
Fred, as poor Tom, has a line about how he is ‘stock-punished and imprisoned’. The next, unconnected, line, is ‘Shhh- peace’. But this audience connected the ‘shhh’ to the ‘imprisoned’- a kind of ‘don’t mention where we are!’- and it got the biggest, and only, laugh that line will ever get. Fffion’s Fool was a particular favourite of this audience, and how could it not be, when the character spends so much time challenging authority?
It was a day that meant something, and our hearts were pretty full by the end. Fred delivered his narration of Gloucester’s death with tears streaming down his face, and for once I didn’t have to reach for my reply ‘I am almost ready to dissolve, hearing of this’.
On the outside, Florence, Alabama charmed and surprised us. On the surface it’s exactly as we foreigners might have imagined a small town in the South to be- neat and pretty and courteous. But it’s also a town with a rebel heart. Some of the greatest music ever made was cut in its two iconic recording studios. Turn a corner in a suburban neighborhood and you might find yourself in front of a stunning Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, or the wooden cabin where W.C Handy, the Father Of The Blues, lived.
And yes, we taught some classes, we did some shows, and people were lovely to us (huge thanks to Cynthia Burkhead for getting us here, and to Stephen Melvin, Jay and Candice for showing us round). The theatre at UNA was pretty much perfect for our show and the students were especially enthusiastic both in their response to the show and in the foyer afterwards.
But my abiding memory of this week, among many extraordinary ones, will be walking past the fences and the barbed wire, hearing the doors shut behind us, breathing in the air and looking at the limitless expanse of land and sky, thinking about the people on the other side of those gates and how we had told them a story.