Laura Pitt-Pulford, actress and singer, speaks to Peter Farrugia about her experiences working with Shakespeare alongside Malta’s young offenders.

Walking up to the Young Offenders Division of Corradino Correctional Facility, past a heavy line of citrus trees, the place felt nothing like a prison. One side of the path is all green and fragrant, and it’s not till you’ve rounded the corner at the top of a steep hill that the sudden confrontation with an imposing concrete edifice, complete with barbed wire and security cameras, drives the reality home.

There’s that hope that maybe some of them will leave here and do something with all this

A prison warden led me through several large metal doors to one of the ‘consultation rooms’ used by lawyers and their clients. The interview began when Laura Pitt-Pulford appeared, looking a little tired but all smiles.

This is her first collaboration with the London Shakespeare Workout (LSW), who are presenting a world premiere of innovatively combined Shakespearean and modern writings set to music and dance. The performance, entitled When You Hear My Voice, will be a first for Malta too.

As a London-based actress, Pitt-Pulford is accustomed to performing in the West End and across the UK, most recently in a tour of Guys and Dolls. Trained at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, Pitt-Pulford was selected by director Bruce Wall as the only female performer in the show.

“There’s a lot in there about power as a woman and vulnerability too. As actors, we’re dealing with the situation at hand and constantly passing the power. It’s about people being trapped and wanting to break free and that’s got huge resonance here.”

Although a few Maltese inmates are taking part, the majority of the actors selected for the performance are non-Maltese, including a man from Estonia, a couple of New Yorkers and Britons from Newcastle and London. They are all in their late teens to early 20s.

Talking to prison officials after the interview, it became clear that Maltese inmates hadn’t expressed much interest in participating. Generally, more foreign inmates wanted to take part, and while there are a few Maltese men in the performance, most of these are local actors and comedians.

What this says about Maltese attitudes towards creative initiatives is debatable – maybe local teen inmates are unwilling to expose themselves in the way a dramatic performance demands, or don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves in English. Maybe they just don’t fancy the idea of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare.

We talk about how it felt getting to know the group when she first arrived in Malta. “It wasn’t uncomfortable at all. They’re down to earth, normal lads. And very polite. The first day was difficult, walking in on a bunch of lads you don’t know and not knowing what to expect. I’d never been in a prison let alone worked in one but I was completely shocked, all the lads had already learnt the script!”

Pitt-Pulford says she did not want to enter the experience knowing too much about their stories, but in conversation and down-time between rehearsals she did get to know a bit about their lives. “None of them have a background in Shakespeare and that’s been really interesting,” she said.

There’s a strongly therapeutic dimension to the whole performance, boosting confidence in the inmates. “Part of the power behind the show comes from letting the inmates know they can do something and be really good at it,” says Pitt-Pulford.

“Bruce (the director) had been with them for three weeks when I came. He took them through the text, taught them how to deliver and express, deal with breathing and projection, all that. And he really introduced them to the beauty of the words.”

Pitt-Pulford shivers a little – the room, like the rest of the prison, is freezing cold.

“There’s that hope that maybe some of them will leave here and do something with all this. If they want to read more because of this, that’s really something.

“I think it’s important that people can learn through the process we’ve laid out here, and if they’re learning anything from me and want to ask questions about my training and ask for my advice, then that’s a true honour.”

When You Hear My Voice opens at St James Cavalier, Valletta, tomorrow and runs till Thursday.

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