Viewing When you hear my Voice at St James Cavalier last Thursday was an extraordinary experience.

I envied the young woman who spoke from the audience at the end of the showing, saying she had seen all four performances- Paul Xuereb

Waiting for the performance to start prepared me for something out of the ordinary for there was a quiet excitement in the audience, an expectation of an event different from familiar drama or comedy.

Presented by an organisation called London Shakespeare Workout, the idea of that fine British actress Dame Dorothy Tutin, with the collaboration of the Young Offenders’ Unit at Corradino, St James Cavalier, the University of Malta and TAC theatre, this production offers a gripping series of scenes that melt skilfully into each other, from works above all by Shakespeare, with smaller contributions by the poet Edna St Vincent Millay, Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams.

There is much professional skill behind it, starting with the direction of Bruce Wall, and impressive composers like Christopher Hamilton, Gareth-Peter Dicks, David Hewson and Grant Studart.

The actors include an English professional, Laura Pitt-Pulford and very gifted Maltese amateurs – Joseph Zammit, Luke Farrugia, Andre Agius and Alexander Gatsey-Lewis – but at the core of the performance lie a number of young offenders at Corradino.

It is they whose disciplined choral acting, and the marvellously focused acting of some of them go straight to the heart and not just the mind. Wall has done a fine job of infusing them not just with the skills none of them ever had before this production, but also with enthusiasm for acting and, above all, for the reading and speaking of that marvel, language.

The production is so rich with the variety of scenes and themes, with songs and choreographic movements, with its interaction of lights and darkness, that a single viewing does not suffice to do it justice.

I envied the young woman who spoke from the audience at the end of the showing, saying she had seen all four performances. I can only comment on the episodes that struck me very hard.

The opening number When you hear my voice, with Hampton’s music, tells the audience immediately what the production is all about.

It enables the audience to get through in a manner few of us ever do, to these young men, some of whom are serving long sentences, to comprehend their humanity and their capacity for the change that can change their lives.

A short dance performed to 16th century style music brings us to the first Shakespearean scene from Julius Caesar, in which the poet Cinna is mistaken for Cinna the conspirator and lynched.

The combined hostility of the group with their stern accusations is followed by a stylised lynching. The production, however, follows this up with the collective repentance of the group.

Pitt-Pulford makes her first entrance as an attractive but golden-haired Cleopatra in a scene from Antony and Cleopatra in which the queen meets Caesar Augustus’s envoy, Dolabella, and refuses his offers of good treatment after showering the dead Antony’s memory with praise. Dolabella was performed with dignity and spoken most lucidly by one of the lads from Corradino. Another episode this time based on Shakespeare is a clever summary of Macbeth, by Peter Bradbury, in which the Scottish king tries to explain that he is not as bad as people think.

Performed and sung with vigour and energy by Zammit, surely one of the best Maltese actors still in their 20s, the episode made good use of the chorus.

In the second half of the show, the main emphasis is on war in which great leaders like Henry V lead so many people to their deaths.

The stage is littered with the bodies of those who die at Harfleur, following Luke Farrugia’s spirited rendering of “Once more unto the breach” in that play, and the production switches back to Henry IV Part One with Falstaff’s cynical speech about honour, spoken with the right dose of bitterness by one of the Corradino boys. Farrugia also made a hit with a finely developed rendering of the song Waltzing Matilda, in which a World War I Aussie soldier sings sadly of his disillusionment.

Pitt-Pulford as Cordelia plays beautifully against a Lear played by Aulis, a personable Estonian from Corradino, who has a strong personality and produces well delivered speeches, in one of the tragedy’s most moving scenes. Kings and queens are not the production’s favourites.

In an episode devoted to Anne Boleyn, played by Pitt-Pulford, a young offender speaks of justice with an irony that could not but strike the audience.

The closing speech, Prospero’s epilogue, in which he pleads “And my ending is despair/Unless I be relieved by prayer;/Which pierces so, that it assaults/Mercy itself, and frees all faults” was spoken movingly by another one of the young men.

This plea went to my heart, saddening me that he and his fellow-offenders may not achieve their freedom perhaps for many years to come.

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