Soliloquies resonate a little differently when they’re performed in solitary confinement. Hank Rogerson’s powerful documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars chronicles a year with the titular company, housed at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, a medium-security prison in Kentucky. For its seventh smash year, SBB selects The Tempest, and we follow the entire process from casting through performance.
The notion of a bunch of convicts interpreting the Bard sounds silly—this is probably the only Tempest cast in history with the role of Ariel played by a man named Bulldog—but SBB takes its work seriously. Rogerson’s structure is ingenious: He dilutes our initial skepticism by showcasing the prisoners’ thoughtfulness and intelligence, and as soon as we’ve come to care for the men he shocks us with the details of their crimes. Leonard, for instance, a charming Kevin Spacey type with a penchant for playing likable assholes, is incarcerated for sexually abusing minors.
To the inmates, acting means more than a temporary escape from incarceration. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a part of Luckett’s larger rehabilitation programs, and the selection of a play about redemption allows the ensemble to reflect on their personal quests for forgiveness with heartbreaking honesty (though when you’re serving life without the possibility of parole, there isn’t much incentive to lie). The final line of The Tempest strikes a particularly profound chord: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be/let your indulgence set me free.”