In February, I visited a class session of Dr. Jack Heller’s Shakespeare at Pendleton, so I was excited when I received an invitation to see their debut performance of Coriolanus. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the play was performed on April 23—Shakespeare’s birthday.
The performance itself took place in a large multipurpose room inside the prison’s educational building. About one hundred people, a mix of inmates and visitors, were in attendance. Film actor and Shakespearean Jeffrey Wright (Catching Fire, Casino Royale) also attended the show with some members of a film crew who are considering using Pendleton as the site of an upcoming movie.
The set was sparse, which I expected would be the case in a maximum-security prison like Pendleton. The inmates performed in front of a black curtain and on top of a small, portable stage. They used cardboard swords as props, provided their own sound effects, and even invited audience participation by holding cue cards that read things like “All hail Coriolanus!”
Coriolanus, a lesser-known Shakespeare play, takes place in ancient Rome. I was familiar enough with the play after studying it a few semesters back in EN431, but most audience members were likely not familiar with its plot and characters.
To help keep this straight, each cast member wore a Shakespeare at Pendleton t-shirt that marked his (or her, with one exception) role in the play. Coriolanus wore a green t-shirt; Patricians wore grey; tribunes and commoners wore orange; and Volces wore yellow. The two female characters wore pink t-shirts: Volumnia, played by a male inmate, and Virgilia, played by Shakespeare at Pendleton’s co-facilitator, Stacy Erickson, Ph.D. In solidarity with the male inmate, director Heller also wore pink for the performance.
The men were wonderful. Each one was prepared with fully memorized lines. It was evident that all of the actors had taken the necessary time to understand the meaning of their lines too. The play’s themes of anger, class, and pride were illuminated in the prison setting. The men who played Scinius, Brutus, and Coriolanus were especially talented and commanded the attention of the audience for the duration of the show.
After the performance ended, the cast came out for curtain call to a standing ovation and stayed afterward for a Q&A session. During this time, the inmates discussed the struggles they faced with line memorization, reconciling elements of the plot with their own histories, and believing that they could successfully perform the complexities of Shakespeare.
They did successfully perform.
In fact, they nailed it, and that’s an excellent 451st birthday gift.
Bronwen Fetters is a junior literature and writing double major. She can be reached at email@example.com. This review reflects the opinion of the writer only.