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The Morals of Macbeth and Peace as Process: Adapting Shakespeare in Northern Ireland’s Maximum Security Prison

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 62, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 340-363 | 10.1353/shq.2011.0065

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The announcement that a group of serving “lifers” had embarked upon a full-length film version of Macbeth, a play generally acknowledged as the most bloody in the Shakespeare repertory, caused some controversy in the United Kingdom’s press. Reactions were hostile and pejorative, with headlines adopting a sensationalist tone.1Mickey B (2006), thought to be the first feature film produced by prisoners, continues to provoke sensitive reactions. Until recently, legal injunctions prohibited it from public screening and distribution.2

Filmed in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Maghaberry, Northern Ireland’s maximum security prison, Mickey B involved forty-two personnel, with parts mostly taken by prisoners, all of whom were well into lengthy sentences. The adaptation credits prisoners Sam McClean and Jason Thompson, as well as William Shakespeare, as authors, while crew work—which extended to building sets, painting, editing, production assistance, sound, and makeup—was also undertaken by inmates. Central to the production was the overseeing role of the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC), a charity with branches in Northern Ireland and the United States that works with socially excluded groups, including prisoners, ex-prisoners, those on probation, the homeless, and youth at risk. As part of its mission, the ESC operates not only in relation to a reformist agenda but also with the aim of achieving successful aesthetic effects. Thus, the company (which had already produced two short films in a prison venue) uses drama and film not only to “help [prisoners] tell their stories and transform themselves” but also to “update and translate Shakespeare for a new audience.”3 Simon Wood, Mickey B’s coproducer, elaborates: “Unless the product is worth being seen and is good in its own right . . . of a quality . . . that makes it have an audience, I don’t think it is worth doing.”4 Wood’s sentiments echo those of the Koestler judges who, awarding Mickey B the 2008 Roger Graef Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film, acknowledge “an outstanding piece of work . . . with mesmerising performances [which] . . . deserves to be seen, and on its own merits.”5 This is an unusual comment for the panel, suggesting as it does that the work has a power that transcends the prison context. Together, producers and appraisers make a case for the utility and integrity of a distinct Shakespearean filmic statement and an original reading of Macbeth (Figure 1).

The notion that an adaptation by prisoners might have a purchase beyond the therapeutic has generally been neglected in Shakespeare studies. While considerable interest has recently been generated by “prison Shakespeare,” the genre is invariably approached by way of a drama therapy model.6 Discussion has emphasized how the performance of Shakespeare in an incarcerated environment can be a powerful force for change. Undoubtedly useful in drawing attention to the extent and nature of Shakespearean activity behind bars, these investigations are circumscribed by a general reluctance to engage with the characteristics of the final product—that is, the film, theatrical creation, or interpretation

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Figure 1. 

Publicity flyer for Mickey B (directed by Tom Magill, 2006) showing, from left to right, Ladyboy/Lady Macbeth (Jason Thompson), Mickey B/Macbeth (David Conway), and Duncan (Sam McClean). Courtesy of the Educational Shakespeare Company.

emerging from the discursive process. Instead, what is demonstrated is a journey of personal development. Prisoner statements, usually in the form of an expressed identification with a particular character or with Shakespeare himself, are rarely interrogated and tend to be taken at face value. An unwillingness to challenge the precise meanings that Shakespeare has for prisoners means that context is ignored and issues of cultural specificity are overlooked. No attention is given to the fact that the statements recorded are inflected by both parole and therapy discourse and the power dynamic between interviewer and interviewee; we have only a partial sense of the situation of a particular institution inside national, class, and race constructions. This results in a universalizing discourse about Shakespeare that would not be acceptable in other critical situations. For example, Laura Raidonis Bates endorses “the humanizing effects” of the Bard on criminal offenders, contending that the plays “are even more relevant to this group,” while Amy Scott-Douglass argues that...