All the World's a Cage: Staging Shakespeare in an Italian Prison

A day with the director, staff and inmates in a Roman jail sheds light on prison life, theater and human nature.

Saviona Mane
Saviona Mane
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Saviona Mane
Saviona Mane

ROME − Afternoon at Rebibbia Prison. Twenty or so inmates from G12 section are sitting in the dimness of the auditorium, silently following the instructions of director Fabio Cavalli. Dangerous inmates − major Mafia figures, drug dealers, murderers, violent criminals. Tough mugs who shed their skin twice a week to embody a character in a classic work by Dante, Shakespeare or Eduardo de Filippo.

Two of them ascend to the lit stage and begin rehearsing a scene from Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a tale of love, jealousy and murder. A tale straight out of real life. Cavalli has adapted the dramatized version of the novella for the prisoners, with whom he has worked for the past decade, and for the hundreds of invited guests who will later see the play in the prison theater. No date has been set for the performance; the timetable is flexible. “There’s no urgency. We put on the play when we’re ready. We can give ourselves six or eight months, even a year, to work on a play,” says Cavalli, 55. “We have time. That’s one of the privileges of working in a prison.”

This is the reality on which brothers Vittorio and Paolo Taviani focused their cameras in their semi-documentary film “Caesar Must Die” ‏(“Cesare deve morire”‏), which brought them, Cavalli and the cast of convicts the Golden Bear Award at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, five Italian “Oscars” and a blast of international fame.

“A friend told us she’d recently been to the theater and was brought to tears, which hadn’t happened to her for years. We went to this theater, and this theater was a prison,” the Taviani brothers explained in a press release ahead of the Berlin Film Festival. “We saw prisoners from the high-security wing performing excerpts from Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ each one in his own dialect, and we felt a need to tell the story of how such beauty could come out of their prison cells.”

And thus, for the first time, cameras were allowed into the G12 wing, the highest-security section of the Roman prison.

The Tavianis’ film, which documents a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” on the prison stage, clearly owes its success to the filmmakers’ mastery, but is just as indebted to Cavalli’s years of work with the actor-inmates, and to his bold decision to present Shakespeare in the prisoners’ native dialects − a brilliant stroke that lends the film an immediate and bracing authenticity. When Brutus says in juicy Neapolitan: “If Caesar lives, he will screw us all ... He will screw Rome,” or when Antony speaks in local slang about “men of honor” − a term commonly used to refer to members of the Mafia − it’s hard to distinguish between the criminal and the Shakespearean character, between the play and reality.

But the film’s road to glory was not an easy one. “When the filming was done, the Taviani brothers were stunned to find that no one wanted to distribute their movie, because no one believed that a movie filmed with inmates inside a prison could stir so much emotion,” says Cavalli. And even when Nanni Moretti’s Sacher Film saw the potential in the film and rose to the challenge, it distributed just 30 or 40 copies of it. The limited release was enough, however, to make it to the Berlin Film Festival, and to spark much curiosity about Cavalli’s work and the prison theater.

What leads a director, playwright and actor who holds a degree in philosophy to do theater inside the walls of a prison that he calls “a graveyard of the living dead”?

“I came here quite by chance 10 years ago, one fall October day,” Cavalli tells Haaretz. He speaks very calmly, in a deep voice, enunciating each word. “A friend who knew my work as a director suggested I come to help some prisoners in the high-security wing, who had begun working on De Filippo’s ‘Napoli Milionaria.’ I remember that day very well. I was escorted up to the high-security wing and locked in a 35-meter room with about 20 men. What I saw was total chaos, but amid this chaos there was more theater than I’d seen in my entire professional life.

Thus began my experiment of making theater in this strange and complex context, in which I was locked together with them behind bars in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. They studied me and I studied them. I tried to understand the hierarchy among them, to see who called the shots. But the intensity of their expression was so strong that I soon stopped asking myself questions, stopped wondering who they were or what they’d done, and just started implementing the method I knew: the Stanislavski method.”

‘Locked up with actors’

The production of “Napoli Milionaria,” in which the inmates also played the female roles, was so successful that even Cavalli was surprised. Subsequently, the warden at the time, Carmelo Cantone, was persuaded to permit the creation of a regular theater workshop with the high-security inmates. “And ever since, I’ve been locked up with my actors inside the walls of Rebibbia,” Cavalli says with a smile.

One of the biggest difficulties encountered when he first began working with the prisoners was the vast cultural gap between his world and theirs. “Some of them were practically illiterate,” he recalls. “They’d never opened a book, never heard the name Shakespeare or Dante. They spoke dialect − Italian was not their mother tongue, it was the language of television.” Before the advent of television in the 1950s, Cavalli points out, a different dialect was spoken in every region of the country. “Television unified the language.”

In an attempt to bridge the cultural gaps, Cavalli decided to have the inmates use the dialects they knew and grew up with when on stage. “I wanted them to sound natural, to have an easier time expressing themselves, to extract feelings, stimuli and memories from them.” And so, when he decided to work on a Shakespeare play with them and selected “The Tempest,” he turned to De Filippo’s Neapolitan translation.

Today, after 10 years of working at Rebibbia, Cavalli’s theater group has 90 actors, and there is a waiting list to get in. The activity is supported by La Ribalta − Centro Studi Enrico Maria Salerno, in which Cavalli is active. The actors are divided into three groups: G12 inmates, all serving long sentences for serious Mafia-related crimes, and considered a danger to the public; G9 inmates, who include former security personnel who “crossed the line,” pedophiles and other sex criminals ‏(with whom Cavalli is assisted by actress and director Daniela Marazita‏); and G8 inmates – “regular” criminals who are directed by two women directors, Laura Andreini and Valentina Esposito.

In September, the actor-inmates from this last group received special permission to perform before an invited audience at the Teatro Argentina in the heart of Rome. The production was “La Festa” ‏(“The Party”‏) by Esposito herself, and it also included the participation of 20 female students from the Accademia Internazionale d’Arte Drammatica. This was the fourth time the prisoners’ troupe was permitted to perform outside of Rebibbia; this year, in wake of the success of “Caesar Must Die,” demand for tickets was greater than usual.

“Everyone wanted to come, we couldn’t meet the demand,” says Cavalli. “Next time we’ll have to think about a bigger venue.”

The preparations and security arrangements for the inmates’ performance outside the prison (which are  free of charge) are very strict and complex; no one from the prison administration wants to see a repeat of what happened once in the 1990s, when a group of inmate-actors from La Fortezza in Tuscany committed a series of robberies during a tour outside the prison.

Over the past five years, nearly 32,000 people have come to watch performances at Rebibbia, but Cavalli would like to see a bigger audience, one that includes journalists and theater critics.

“The prison is an intimidating setting, and the theater that is done here is perceived as amateur, community theater. They don’t think of it as art,” he complains. “I’ve been interviewed by phone for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, and for newspapers in Latin America and Japan, and now you’re coming from Israel. But the Italian dailies don’t come here. They didn’t come before the Taviani brothers’ movie and they haven’t come since, either.”

Writer, journalist and theater scholar Letizia Bernazza attributes this more to the cultural changes occurring in the Italian media than to any aversion aroused by the prison.

“In recent years, culture in general and theater in particular has received hardly any coverage in the daily and weekly papers. There’s no room for in-depth articles, for interviews. And professional [cultural] journalism is disappearing because no one’s buying it anymore,” says Bernazza, who wrote a book about theater activity at the Tuscan prison, “La Compagnia della Fortezza” ‏(together with Valentina Valentini, a lecturer at La Sapienza University in Rome‏).

“The newspapers have done away with almost all the space that used to be given to theater. Everything has become entertainment, including politics, and so when an editor has to choose between a production in a prison and another show − he’ll obviously choose to cover the one that appeals more to the general public,” she says. “Yes, it’s the job of the few remaining theater critics to inform the public of everything that’s happening in the field, but what can they do when they’re lucky to get half a column?”

‘They’re also human beings’

Since he began working at Rebibbia 10 years ago, Cavalli has seen the inmates on an almost daily basis. He’s watched them change and grow old.

Are you involved in their personal lives too?

“Not at all; sometimes I don’t even know why they’re in prison. That doesn’t interest me. I’m not a judge, I’m not a policeman, I’m not a social worker. I’m just trying to create art in the belief that it has the power to spread peace and beauty among all.”

Isn’t there something morally wrong in giving people who’ve committed heinous crimes the opportunity to gain artistic fame, I ask − thinking about such notorious Israeli criminals as Eli Pimstein, who murdered his baby daughter; Ronnie Ron, who drowned his granddaughter in a suitcase in the Yarkon River; Benny Sela, who tormented his rape victims. About Yigal Amir. The question angers Cavalli.

“Article 27 of the Italian constitution says that prisons are not meant solely to punish the criminal, but also to rehabilitate him. Prison is not about causing pain to someone who caused pain. It’s not a culture of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Even those who have committed the ghastliest crimes can change, can repent,” Cavalli says. “So I am willing to work with any prisoner. I even worked once with a criminal who dissolved a child in acid. Today he has a degree in philosophy. He looks back and says: ‘I did what I did and I’m paying for it.’

“They are prisoners, but they are also human beings, and you can’t say yes to one and no to another. All Italian criminals are equal. Our former prime minister is also a convicted criminal. Bring him here and I’ll do theater with [Silvio] Berlusconi, too, no problem. Why not give him the opportunity to mend his ways too?!”
One person who has mended his ways is Salvatore Striano, a former inmate in Rebibbia’s high-security wing, who was convicted on drug charges and returned to the prison to play the role of Brutus in “Caesar Must Die.” “Now he’s an actor,” says Cavalli, “who goes to schools around the country to tell kids ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t take drugs, don’t stumble like I did.’ And the more famous the person is who says this, the more powerful his words are.”

In “Il Riscatto” ‏(“The Redemption”‏), the movie that Vittorio Taviani’s daughter Giovanna made about him, Striano says you saved his life. What does he mean?

“I don’t know if I saved his life, I just know that I helped him discover that he’s more successful as an actor than as a criminal, that it’s not worth it for him to stay involved in something that led him to spend 10 of his 33 years in prison. Theater, in prison or out, helps one to formulate new concepts, new values, to experience lofty levels of poetry − to experience feelings translated into words that everyday language is incapable of expressing. Theater is a place of freedom, even here. It causes profound changes in how a person views himself, in how he views the world ... Whether or not I save Striano isn’t important. What matters is that now he’s out in the world and saying that, thanks to art, someone saved his life.”

Maria Carla Covelli, deputy director of Rebibbia Prison, also believes in the power of art, especially theater, to improve prisoners’ lives and contribute to their rehabilitation. Besides the theater program, the prison offers its 1,800 inmates a variety of artistic activities, such as painting, music, practical art and, in the transgender wing, dance therapy. But the positive effects of theater are unmistakable.

“Studies show that the recidivism rate among those who were involved in theater in prison is just 6 percent, compared to 60 percent among all released prisoners,” says Covelli, talking in her office. “Under the guidance of the director Cavalli, dangerous inmates like those in the high-security wing have managed to find incredible, surprising, extraordinary abilities within themselves.”

These achievements, Covelli adds, boost their self-image, give them the feeling that they’re worth something and prompt them to do some soul-searching. “Theater has tremendous rehabilitative power and the theater work also affects the assessments when weighing whether to give extra privileges to inmates.” And yet, funding for the theater program at Rebibbia comes not from government budgets, but mainly from money raised by the La Ribalta foundation in Lazio province.

In the Rebibbia performance hall, the rehearsal is nearing its end. Before the inmates are escorted back to their cells, I have the chance to hold a brief conversation with them. Some sit down on the edge of the stage, others on the chairs around me. Young men, middle-aged men, graying older men − all gaze curiously at the visitor. Almost all of them took part in the Taviani brothers’ film.

They are articulate, polite, careful with their words. I imagine they were given a briefing before this chat.

The movie’s success hasn’t gone to their heads, they say. “Just getting the recognition that we did a good job is our reward,” says Vittorio Parrella, 50, who is serving a long sentence on drug charges. “It was a beautiful journey, but our feet stayed planted firmly on this stage.”

What does doing theater here mean to you? What does it give you?

“It helped me discover talents I didn’t know I had. I learned, for instance, that I could stand in front of an audience of 400 people and entertain them, that I could make them cry,” says Antonio Frasca, 33, who was sentenced to 15 years for murder.“And it pushed me to do some soul-searching.”

Juan Bonetti, 40, serving 16 years for drug offenses, is just as adamant that theater has changed him for the better. “When we’re assigned a role and we start to dig deep within ourselves in order to become the character, we find that emotional chords have been struck that we didn’t know we had in us.”

For Vincenzo Gallo, 34, serving a life sentence for murder, “the big difference is that upstairs you’re a prisoner and down here you’re someone else: You’re an actor, a human being.”

The warden, who has been sitting in the hall the whole time, signals that it’s time to wrap up the conversation. The last word goes to the eldest of the inmates,

Francesco de Masi, 63, who plays the lead role in “The Kreutzer Sonata” and is serving a long sentence for drug offenses and organized crime. “Theater is magic. It’s like going to sleep with an ugly woman and waking up in the morning next to a beautiful woman.”

They bid me farewell with a handshake. “We’re glad we’ll be talked about in Israel, and maybe the rest of the world,” one of them calls out.

“Shalom,” says another to me in Hebrew.

Tough dilemma

I remain in the hall with Cavalli and his colleague Marazita, who plays the female lead in “The Kreutzer Sonata.” She first came to Rebibbia seven years ago, when she was invited to play the role of Gertrude in a new version of “Hamlet” together with the G12 inmates.

“In the first rehearsals, there was a lot of tension,” she recalls. “There was a lot of wariness and awkwardness. I didn’t know how they would react, how to behave. I didn’t want to bring any actress-y affectations to the stage.”

At one rehearsal, she says, Cavalli called on the prisoner who was playing King Claudius to embrace her affectionately. “He was silent for a moment, and then he raised his hand and asked: How do you hug someone affectionately?”

Four years ago, when she was offered the chance to work with Cavalli in the G9 wing with pedophiles and rapists, she faced a tough dilemma. “It was an experiment that no one had ever done before. I was hesitant. I said: ‘Wait a minute, this is not that simple.’ It wasn’t easy to think about their crimes, to let go of prejudices.”

But in the end she agreed. Today she feels secure enough around them to not have a jailer present in their allotted rehearsal space in the prison chapel. “But I still behave differently with them than I do with the prisoners from the high-security wing,” she admits. And she has just published a book about her prison experience, “Hai Appena Applaudito un Criminale” ‏(“You’ve Just Applauded a Criminal”‏).

In addition to her work in the G9 wing, she often plays female roles in plays that Cavalli puts on in the high-security wing. In the stage version of “Julius Caesar,” she played Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia. “But in the movie, the Taviani brothers chose to completely ignore the female presence in this men’s prison − even though there are lots of women involved in daily life here,” she says. “All the directors of wings at Rebibbia are women. There are also nuns, women teachers, doctors, lawyers ...But that was their choice, and we are very happy with the film.”

Two kilometers away from this men’s prison is a women’s prison, where there is hardly any theater activity. “The number of women in Italian prisons is very small,” Cavalli explains. “Only 1,700 out of a total prison population of 67,000. Half of them are foreigners, gypsies from the Roma community, and the rest are women inmates serving short sentences. It’s a revolving-door situation.” Which makes it hard to form theater troupes: “Only in the high-security wing for women criminals convicted of Mafia crimes – the Camorra, women who are serving long sentences – it might be possible to do something.”

The theater activity in Rebibbia began in 1982, when six prisoners staged a production of Jean Genet’s play “Deathwatch” outside the prison walls. Since then, the idea has spread to most of Italy’s prisons.

Besides Rebibbia, the prison with the oldest and most extensive theater program is La Fortezza  – in the Tuscan city of Volterra – which has the closest thing possible to a regular theater troupe. Its 40 to 50 members devote eight hours a day, five days a week, to drama workshops. Teatro La Fortezza, founded 25 years ago by Neapolitan director Armando Punzo, has, since 1998, organized a festival that has become famous in Italy and attracts thousands of people from across the country each summer. Entrance to the festival is free, but attendees are invited to leave a donation. Some members of the troupe are even permitted to leave the prison for performances elsewhere in Italy.

In 1995, the company’s activity was suspended after 10 of the actors who were on tour used the opportunity to commit a series of bank robberies. “They were made-up and in costume and they were very comfortable going about it, as if they were on stage,” Guido Marino, the police officer who tracked them down, testified at the time.

Unlike other theater directors who now work in Italian prisons, Punzo does not view this work as a means of rehabilitating inmates, but rather as another version of art for art’s sake. If this work happens to also have some social ramifications, that is just a secondary consequence, the 54-year-old director said in an interview with Massimo Marino, a professor of theater at the University of Bologna who has been following the Teatro La Fortezza for years.

In 2006, Marino did a comprehensive study of the theater programs in Italian prisons, as part of the European Union’s educational initiative called the Socrates Program. “Theater is being done in 60 percent of the country’s 207 prison facilities,” he tells Haaretz. Although prison theater programs are not uncommon in other European countries, especially France, the Italian phenomenon is still quite unique in terms of its scope and influence, he adds.

Marino, who believes the data have not changed significantly since he conducted his study, says that the prison theater programs in Italy have developed for the most part in just the past 10 years.

“Not to sound cynical,” he says, “but it might also be because there are currently a lot of theater people in Italy who aren’t able to find work in their field, and so they go into pedagogy and teaching.”

His study also showed that the funding for prison theater is not institutionalized but comes from a variety of sources: the Justice Ministry, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, regional administrations, European organizations, individual donors, and so on.

Meanwhile, at Rebibbia, another day of work has come to end for Cavalli. What is the next project he has in mind for the G12 inmates, I ask. “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” by Bertolt Brecht, a play written as an allegory for Hitler’s rise to power, about a gang of mobsters taking over Chicago. “It will be a show with music and dancing,” the director explains. “I have two or three inmates who dance really well. But we’ll have to find solutions so they won’t be offended by the comparison.”

And where would he like to see himself 10 years from now? “Stop time, thou art so beautiful,” he replies, quoting Goethe. “Right now I am here. Later − who knows?”
We part at the prison gate. “I’d be happy if you send me the article,” he says. “I have somebody who can translate. In G12 there’s a Hebrew-speaking rabbi: He’s in for international drug trafficking. Men of God sin, too.”

Theater in Israeli prisons

For the past three decades, five or six theater groups have been active in Israeli prisons, too. Sivan Weizman, spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service, says that the productions and workshops all receive their funding from the prison service (i.e., the state). A theater production is currently being staged at the Neveh Tirza Prison, with some public performances. Most often, the prisoners perform in front of other prisoners, relatives, community workers, volunteers, and workers from academia. On occasion, they also take part in shows and festivals outside of prison.

“The basic principle that underlies our work is that, in this profound, complex process, the theater serves as both catalyst and mirror for group processes,” wrote Iris Tessler, Peter Harris and Chen Alon in an article entitled “A Different Kind of Theater: Inmates and Students Behind the Prison Walls.”

The piece, written six years ago, describes a program that brings Tel Aviv University theater students together with prisoners: “The model centers around regular meetings between students and inmates, in which the theater serves as an arena that enables both the student and the inmate participants to test themselves as individuals and to test their group as representing ‘the other’ ... The conflicts of the project’s ‘dual-community’ ‏(inmates and students‏) take shape, are written down and then presented on stage in the culminating theater production, which enables both the group and the audience to deal with the fundamental questions involved in the process.”

A scene from “Caesar must die” “Prison is an intimidating setting, and the theater done here is perceived as amateur theater,” says Cavalli. “[Critics and journalists] don’t think of it as art.”
From the play “Hamlet. “Studies show the recidivism rate among those involved in theater is 6 percent, compared to 60 percent among released prisoners,” says the deputy prison director
Fabio Cavalli. “Those who have committed the ghastliest crimes can change.”Credit: Saviona Mane
Massimo Marino: 'Theater is being done in 60 percent of Italy's prison facilities.' Credit: Saviona Mane
Letizia BernazzaCredit: Rosy Battaglia