Shakespeare helps rehabilitate Indian prisoners

Two actors perform the Yorick scene from Hamlet as part of the Rangayana Mysore theatre company’s project
Two actors perform the Yorick scene from Hamlet as part of the Rangayana Mysore theatre company’s project

PRISONERS in India have been given the chance to star in Shakespeare plays as part of an aim to rehabilitate them.

Having inmates perform not only helps them engage with a range of emotions, but is also a way for them to look at their offences from a different perspective.

The plan features in a series of a stories that showcase the impact of Shakespeare’s work in south Asia and is currently part of an exhibition at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Dr Islam Issa, a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University and the exhibition’s content curator, explained that Shakespeare’s work has “some really human characters” that can adapt the prisoners outlook on certain social situations.

Dr Islam Issa

“[Having them perform in these roles shows] how the consequences of good and bad actions manifest themselves in society and so they can see that good actions do have consequences and bad actions have consequences and see that life is quite complex.

“Just because you’ve made a mistake, doesn’t mean you’re a completely bad person.”

English literature student Sairah Amin, who corresponded with the Rangayana Mysore theatre company regarding the project, said she found the story “compelling”.

“We can see that real people are behind Shakespeare’s words and there is a real impact being made”.

On the opportunity to act as a curating assistant for the exhibition, she said: “The experience forced me to think of Shakespeare differently. As someone with both Pakistani and Indian roots, I was finally able to see my own identity reflected in Shakespeare.”

The exhibition, which took around six months to a year to complete, focuses on Shakespeare within the eight South Asian countries, and Issa hopes that visitors can understand how much of a global citizen Shakespeare has become.

“He is of interest to people all around the world –  he is used and adapted in so many different ways… by learning more about how he is used in other countries, we can learn more about Shakespeare as well, here in the UK.”

Elizabeth Dollimore, informal learning and programmes manager at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said: “We focused on South Asia in this exhibition to mark the 70 years since the partition of India and Pakistan. Working with Islam and his students has given this exhibition a uniquely quirky journalistic feel exploring a range of individual stories of how Shakespeare touches communities.”

Issa, who has worked as a lecturer at Birmingham City University for two years, said: “This exhibition presented a few challenges because South Asia has an interesting relationship with English culture, mainly due to a long colonial history. But in so many cases, including this one, it became clear that today, anyone can take ownership of Shakespeare.”

An image of two Indian inmates performing a famous scene from Hamlet is currently featured in the Shakespeare in South Asia exhibition which is on at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon until September 8.