Maggie Rose in Lombardy
23 December 2022
In late November, Shakespeare and the Law. Romeo, Mercutio, Juliet and Tybalt on Trial played at the Punto Zero theatre. It is an innovative rewrite of Romeo and Juliet.
Photo credit: Vanessa Costa.
Situated inside Milan’s “Cesare Beccaria” juvenile detention centre, the theatre opened in 2013. In 2019 a door was opened, allowing audiences direct access, without going through identity checks at the main prison entrance.
This, according to founders and directors Giuseppe Scutellà and Lisa Mazoni, makes Punto Zero the first ‘prison theatre’ in Europe to enjoy an independent status, facilitating its work as a bridge between the prison and the city outside. Punto Zero is the brainchild of Scutellà and Mazoni, who since the late 1990s have been running drama workshops for inmates and young people.
The cast of twenty-three, all under twenty-five, included Milan University students, inmates and members of Punto Zero. The 200-seater auditorium was full, and the young players kept audience members enthralled in a highly charged atmosphere. There were ‘locals’ from the area in the suburbs of Milan, where the prison is situated, young people, often friends and relatives of the performers, and others who had found out about the show on social media.
The audience, in terms of social class and age, was decidedly different from the middle-aged and elderly, middle and upper- middle-class theatre-goers who usually attend Shakespeare productions in Milan.
Photo credit: Vanessa Costa.
This truly assorted cast and audience found themselves assembled together for several reasons. The performance resulted from a theatre workshop, devoted to the rewriting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and emerged after four intense weeks of discussion, writing and rehearsals at the Puntozero Theatre and inside the juvenile detention centre.
These activities were part of TYPUS (Transforming Young People Using Shakespeare), a Creative Europe programme financed by the EU with partners in Italy, Greece and Norway. Using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the leaders aim to transform the lives of young people in difficult circumstances and in a variety of settings.
In November, the Italian team of four who set up the programme, namely Prof. Cristina Cavecchi, head of the project, Giuseppe Scutellà and Lisa Mazoni, and this correspondent in the role of dramaturg-translator, in collaboration with Profs. Letizia Mancini, Lucio Camaldo and Luigi Cominelli, members of Milan University’s Law Faculty, and junior researcher, Marta Fossati, led a group of 48 participants (32 Milan University students, 16 prisoners and young people from Puntozero).
In his dual role as stage director and dramaturg, Giuseppe Scutellà created a script, incorporating a selection of short scenes from Romeo and Juliet: the initial feuding between the Capulet and Montague servants which is abruptly halted by Escalus, Prince of Verona; the discussion between Mercutio and Benvolio about why the former is always spoiling for a fight; the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt and Nurse pleading with Romeo not to lead Juliet into ‘a fool’s paradise’ but rather hasten to Friar Lawrence’s cell to confess and after marry her mistress; Friar Lawrence’s disquisition about the co-existence of good and evil, and how everything, humans, herbs and plants etc., are subject to mutability, meaning they can quickly switch from good to bad, and back again.
Photo credit: Vanessa Costa.
Scutella’s selection of scenes meant he foregrounded the violent conflict among the young protagonists, the law’s inadequacy to control the situation, the reasons for the conflict, and Friar Lawrence’s monologue which gives hope that things can change, while choosing to discard the well-known love story between Romeo and Juliet and the inter-generational conflict between parents and children, leaving only the one between Juliet and her Nurse.
As rehearsals got underway, this director-dramaturg deployed techniques similar to a collage, deftly interweaving material written by the attendees into the Shakespearean frame. For instance, in the opening scene of Shakespeare and the Law, we hear about the online meeting between the attendees and playwright Edward Bond which took place in week two.
Bond provocatively told the group that he thought Shakespeare should probably not be performed for the next ten years in the UK. The young people, who believe wholeheartedly that Shakespeare is worth performing, came out vociferously in Shakespeare’s defence.
Diary entries by the university students, charting their experiences of working in a mixed group in the context of a prison and two monologues, written by inmates and former prisoners, now living in community settings, were also incorporated into the script. The first monologue addressed the narrator’s mother, explained why the speaker was in prison and asked for her forgiveness. The second, The Girl in the Wardrobe, was a tragicomic boy-meets-girl story of survival in the context of a community setting where the young man lives.
Music, songs and rap, at which some of the inmates excel, were thrown into the mix. There were also interactive scenes when the performers went into the auditorium; one of these, ‘Stolen Goods’, saw the actors haggling with audience members in order to nail down a price.
The creative process, lasting four days on consecutive Saturdays in November, together with rehearsals inside the prison on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, means that the attendees work for much of the time in small groups, made up of actors, dramaturgs, promoters and video makers. Since each group is assigned a particular task, with a strict deadline, the attendees soon bond and feel empowered by their new status. It is in these groups, hour by hour, session by session, that the transformative process takes place.
Here are just two examples of group work. The first, from the group of seven student-dramaturgs, whom I tutored. I asked them to transcribe and edit the diary entries, as well as to rewrite Friar Lawrence’s monologue in modern Italian. Such linguistic changes distinguished the speech from the rest of the Shakespeare scenes in more classical Italian.
Friar Lawrence’s disquisition seemed fundamental to me regarding the aims of the TYPUS project, underscoring as it does the mutability and duality of everything in the cosmos. These concepts are, moreover, fundamental to understanding the transformation we are trying to achieve in the young people. Like the other small groups, the dramaturgs quickly bonded and became increasingly pro-active. Judging by the different drafts of the monologue, it is evident that some participants undoubtedly improved their writing skills and style, too.
The second example focuses on the actors group. On day one of the workshop, most university students revealed they had no prior acting experience. They felt shy and awkward, unsure that they would succeed in their task. However, thanks to Giuseppe Scutella’s expertise and infinite patience as well as the support of the more experienced actors from Puntozero, these reluctant actors learnt some basic acting skills, and, in the final performance, they played their roles confidently, merging with the more experienced performers.
The student who took the role of Friar Lawrence interpreted him as a serious but compassionate man. Scutella chose to bathe the figure in blue lighting, creating a calm, quiet moment in an otherwise fast-paced show.
He encouraged the actor to deliver the monologue like a sermon, making reference to Girolamo Savonarola, the Italian preacher and reformer, who in his youth wanted to become a doctor. Instead, the inmates, who were all involved in the actors group, had attended Scutellà’s drama classes prior to the start of the workshop. This made them feel a step ahead of others group members, including the university students, and boosted their self-esteem.
One inmate, a tall, stocky man, who interpreted Tybalt, conjured up a superb ‘King of the Cats’, swaggering on stage, knife in hand, itching for a fight with Mercutio, whose murder he enacted, with stunning realism.
In conclusion, this mixed workshop group, from the point of view of education, acting skills and social backgrounds, steadily came together in the name of our final goal, this being the stage performance. The show had to be propelled forward at all cost.
En route to achieving this, the participants supported each other, learnt to respect their differences and acquired new skills. Once the workshop was finished we asked participants for their feedback, and their answers showed that they not only felt empowered and had made new friends but they had also learnt something about prison life and Shakespeare in performance. It is at least in part thanks to their multifaceted, collaborative work on Shakespeare’s play that such changes came about.