‘To be or not to be’ is the question Prince Hamlet asks in the in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, first published in 1603, where he bemoans the pains and unfairness of life.

Inside the Pua Wananga as the Shakespeare Behind Bars performance commenced.This was also the question prisoners at NRCF asked themselves during a ‘Shakespeare Behind Bars’ programme. The American programme, founded by Curt Tofteland at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky, has been running for over 20 years.  It exclusively uses the works of William Shakespeare to offer prisoners ‘theatrical encounters with personal and social issues, to help them develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.’

Tofeland visited New Zealand in May 2015 as the fifth Creative Fellow of the University of Auckland’s Creative Thinking Project.  As a result of this fellowship, he was funded by the University of Auckland to visit Northland Region Corrections Facility and to conduct the workshop. His visit was facilitated by Jacqui Moyes, Arts in Corrections Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa.
The main work during the programme centred on the restorative circles of reconciliation process and focussed on the famous soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’.

“The soliloquy asks all the questions we were addressing in the workshop,” says Arts Tutor Beth Hill.  “At the end of the workshop we put together a performance of ‘to be or not to be’ in three groups and the results were amazing.” Beth says the men really related to the themes of the play with one of them stating he felt “we all have a little bit of Shakespeare in us!”

The four main questions that the work focussed on were:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I love?
  • How will I live my life, knowing I will die?
  • What is my gift to humankind?

All but one of the men was new to Shakespeare. However, Jacqui says, they have developed a love of his words and an understanding of their relevance to their lives. For instance, they workshopped and performed Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy – focusing on four questions: Who am I?; What do I love?; How will I live my life, knowing I will die?; and What is my gift to humankind?

 “It’s a very positive group and staff say the men always come back to the unit with smiles on their faces. The reality of life in prison is that it’s very hard to stay positive and feel hope. But you need to feel positive and hopeful if you’re going to take steps towards making change – and that’s what this group is providing.”

A welcoming powhiri by the men of Pukeko Unit was the first cultural event in New Zealand experienced by the overseas programme facilitators, and Beth says they were ‘blown away!’

Participants were selected from the arts programme run by Beth at NRCF and the mentoring programme run by Tutor Bridgette Jochems.

“They were chosen because they were all involved in arts and cultural programmes at NRCF and have proven themselves to be mature, committed and creative.”