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Macbeth in HMP Gartree

Macbeth in HMP Gartree

Macbeth in HMP Gartree

Rowan MacKenzie reflects on the process of rehearsing and performing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a prison and what it may mean for the nine men involved.

I began as a volunteer at HMP Gartree in early 2018. Trying to establish a group of men to work on rehearsing and performing Macbeth was initially tough going. For months we struggled to get the numbers to attend. However, in July 2018 I went directly to the prison wings to encourage people to sign up and this gave me my core group of nine actors. The purpose of the drama work was to allow these men to explore beyond their imprisonment. As a member of the Milton Keynes College education team at HMP Gartree said after our performance:

Men who struggle with daily life and its problems became someone else for a short while.”

Working on the play

Before starting, I edited the script to 45 minutes and after that the actors and I made further alterations as a collective. We retained much of the original language but added in some modern dialogue, several humorous elements, and – given the highly edited version we were using – a narrator to explain the plot. The men then chose the roles they wished to play (there were no volunteers to play a female role, so I was Lady Macbeth!).

In weekly sessions at the library we worked through the script scene-by-scene and used techniques such as hot-seating (where a character is questioned by the rest of the group on their behaviour and motivation) to focus on how the characters felt.

The majority of the sessions focused on learning lines, as none of the men had ever acted before and didn’t want to put their scripts down until the final week of rehearsals. Focusing on remembering the text did impact their engagement with the characters, but by the day of the performance we had really delved into the emotions being conveyed.

The reaction

Initially, a number of the men thought they would struggle with the language and were concerned about how relevant it would be – but this soon dissipated and it was great to see them supporting each other. One of the men struggled with his lines, so the rest of the ensemble helped by prompting him when needed and suggesting other creative solutions, such as writing the lines a paper scroll.

As we moved into the final week and I asked them to really focus on how their characters were feeling with every line, the men begun to think more about the people they were inhabiting.

The actor playing Macbeth came to me with tears in his eyes at the end of one rehearsal. He was struggling with the speech that followed the news of Lady Macbeth’s death as it brought back memories of his offence and how he felt afterwards.

Many of the prisoners involved were serving life sentences for murder. We had discussed as a group how Macbeth felt after killing Duncan, with many choosing to share personal insights. However, this speech was still affecting him deeply and it was having a physical impact on his ability to remember the words. I had offered for us to cut the speech but he declined and insisted he wanted to speak the words, saying “I need to do this.” On the day of the performance he did just that with passion and authenticity. He told me afterwards, “playing Macbeth has done more for me than nine months of daily therapy.”

Although these men had committed serious offences, my role was not to judge them but instead to work with them and to help give them transferrable skills to use both inside prison and on release.


Working in a prison brings multiple challenges – lockdowns, regime changes and non-attendance by the men to some rehearsals.

We worked with minimal props as these need to be approved before they can be brought into the prison, and as a volunteer with no funding I didn’t have the budget for lavish costumes. However, a man wing-bound due to ill-health volunteered to make the crowns and daggers from cardboard and silver paper, and these took pride of place on the day of the performance.

The performance

The actors nominated a number of men to attend the final performance and they joined prison staff, including the Governor and Deputy Governor, in an audience of around 40 people.

The actors did a brilliant job and even when a few lines were forgotten they carried on valiantly, supporting each other throughout. At the end of the performance we received a standing ovation from the audience and the feedback was glowing, with a number of men asking to join future projects.

The audience commented on the “dedication of the actors” and how we made Shakespeare “accessible” and “showed the human side of individuals.” The Governor told us how impressed she was with the commitment of the ensemble and confirmed she would like the drama group to become a long-running part of the prison.


When the men were speaking to friends and staff afterwards the atmosphere was positive, jovial and above all, contained an element of equality which is often sadly lacking in prison. Through performing Shakespeare these men forgot for a while that they were in a prison chapel and instead inhabited the moors and castles of Scotland.

They became actors, not prisoners, albeit for a brief period of time. But this glimpse into another world is one they were keen to rekindle – even five minutes before we started the performance their primary concern was not on the impending production, but a reassurance that we could begin work on another play next Friday.

We will shortly begin adapting Julius Caesar (chosen by the ensemble) and hope to keep the drama growing in HMP Gartree.

Event: Applying Shakespeare ll
Guildford School of Acting, 1st June 2019

The Shakespeare Institute’s annual one-day conference considers how Shakespeare is used within applied theatre contexts. Find out more here

Images courtesy of the author