Art beat

8th October 1999 at 01:00
It is a truism that Samuel Beckett has a special appeal for prisoners. But nothing quite prepares you for seeing the plays done within the confines of D Wing "cage", a covered exercise yard, inside HM prison Brixton.

Trevor Nunn joined an audience of prisoners, officers and guests, all seated on similar rock-like sandbags, to watch the culmination of a National Theatre education project, Beckett in Brixton, last week. Extracts from Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Footfalls, Play, Happy Days and Come and Go took on further significance in the circumstances and, woven together, made a satisfying whole which emphasised some of Beckett's themes. Waiting for Godot has particular resonances, not simply because the loss of freedom entails frustrated waiting, but because, as the director Stephen Powell, puts it, "it's like being in a cell with a cell-mate winding you up." To underline the point, Vladimir and Estragon wheeled on the frame of a prison bunk bed.

The lines about hanging took on an unaccustomed horror in a building where suicide by this means is currently in the news. But, generally, the grudging interdependence of human beings, their attempts to cope with the gloom of being alive by deploying desperate humour and even affection, came over forcefully.

Endgame was especially strong, well-paced and involving - there was scarcely a murmur from the audience. Hamm was played with gusto by a prisoner and Clov by Tim Crouch, a lanky professional actor able to combine a funny walk with depths of icy viciousness, just right for Beckett. Masters and servants, those who have power controlling those who don't, the impossibility of escaping authority or routine (as in Happy Days) are ideas which could not have a more receptive audience.

Sometimes the performers were brave, as when two prisoners joined actor Clive Llewellyn in Come and Go; they were all dressed in matching spotted skirts and bonnets in a funny sketch about gossip. There was a momentary grin out of character, but that was all. In Godot, "Pozzo" made the most of biting into a chicken leg, playing directly to colleagues in the audience. "Food," says Stephen Powell, "is an emotive issue."

Powell, who worked with the volunteer cast for three weeks, was particularly happy with Footfalls, because it requires such concentration. The prisoner pacing up and down had been incarcerated for 25 years and said "I've done this all my life."

Powell says it is courageous of such people to take part: "To be involved in a creative process is to open up", not only to make yourself emotionally vulnerable, but to have to face criticism as well as praise.

There was a debriefing at the end of the week and a pack for participants, some of whom are already interested in writing poetry. Prisoners' and officers' families will be invited to the National's Christmas show. For information about NT education, most of which is more mainstream than this project, tel: 0171 452 3333 Northern Arts' annual theatre festival for children and young people, Take Off 99, is at Darlington Arts Centre and Civic Theatre between October 19 and 23. Fifteen of the best small-scale touring companies are being brought together by Cleveland Theatre Company to perform to an estimated 2,000 children and young people over four days. There will be dance theatre for the under-fives, Greek tragedy for older children and a play about teenage relationships at the end of the millennium.Tel: 0191 281 2866 Birmingham will be hosting Music Live 99 at the National Exhibition Centre between November 19 and 21. Billed as "the largest music making show ever staged in the UK", it will be of special interest to anyone thinking of going into the music business. For the first day, "Education Day", teachers can apply for complimentary tickets for accompanied students. There is a hot line for teachers wishing to fax Mammoth Events for tickets: 01353 662489. Information: 01353 666336 or The West Swindon Schools' Shakespeare Festival was launched last week. A thousand pupils, students and teachers will be staging a version of every Shakespeare play over two weeks in April 2000. This mammoth project is being led by Tim Noble, senior teacher at Greendown community school, and Chris Geelan, veteran leader of school Shakespeare workshops. Chris and his partner, Sarah Gordon, will use active methods to bring the plays alive - much as they did last year when 600 pupils studied and acted in The Tempest. This time there will even be infants in Henry V. Chris Geelan got everyone focusing on the task by leading a workshop with 30 staff from 20 schools. Visit the festival website - or call Tim Noble on 01793 874224 for information.

Heather Neill

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