A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005)


            William Shakespeare wrote some of the most unsavory characters in the history of theater. Anyone who has studied his works knows that plays like Titus Andronicus are far more shocking than nearly anything created today, and this is why it makes sense that convicted felon would have the most to learn from Shakespeare. As the theater group at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett prison found out with The Tempest, Shakespeare often deals with the theme of forgiveness, and that is what they need most. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a fantastic documentary that shows a positive growth experience in the least likely place.


            The theater program at Luther Luckett only does Shakespeare, which is appropriate considering the roles were all played by men when they were first written, and in the all-male prison there is no choice but to have men play the female roles. The program is a privilege and it is difficult to watch inmates make a mistake that causes them to lose the privilege to perform. The outcome for those who remain in the group is a private performance for family, and a separate performance for their fellow inmates. Each year they do one Shakespeare play and Shakespeare Behind Bars is about their production of The Tempest.


            These aren’t great actors, although they take themselves very seriously and the final production is rather impressive considering it is in a prison. What makes the documentary interesting isn’t the fact that they are good actors. It’s the fact that an art form has saved and reformed many of these men, even the ones who will never see the outside of a prison again. They are human and they make mistakes, but their stories are fascinating and Shakespeare seems to be the most positive thing in their lives.


            The DVD has an impressive prisoner commentary. I am impressed because of the fact that it is included as a feature, although I’m not sure if it is as important as the filmmaker commentary which is also included in the special features. There are also deleted scenes, which I would have been fine skipping, and bonus performance footage. Not only is theater boring to watch on tape, but as I mentioned before, the film is good for other reasons that don’t necessarily include the acting.

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