Last Thursday Erica and I went to a superb performance of Romeo and Juliet. We weren’t actually in Verona, we weren’t even in a theatre the play took place in the training ground of the Merseyside Fire Service. The actors weren’t Italians, they weren’t professional actors they were local men, women and young people who had found a love of books and were showing that love by delivering the words of one of our language’s hardest task masters Shakespeare himself.
The play was stunning. Always true to the spirit of Shakespeare with the occasional word and phrase substitution to bring the event to life for people who had never been to see any play never mind Shakespeare before. The young lovers had us all in tears, the sexuality of the young men was suitably alarming, and their aggression was suitably disgraceful. A great event played out in front of worried fire fighters whose basic rules of engagement were being thoroughly challenged!
“But”, you might ask, “Why was this us unusual”. Well we need to look a little further into why the play was being enacted; where it was being enacted and who brought it about to hear the really wonderful story of that night.
Croxteth is a place whose name came to public attention three years ago when a young boy going home after playing football stopped a bullet not meant for him but being shot by one gang member at another. This act horrified the country as well as the city and brought about many discussions about the gang culture which lay behind it. Gangs, usually of young men, have always been a feature of society. They have been since Shakespeare wrote about them; since the Jets of West Side Story; since the mods and the rockers of my youth and still exist today. The fight is about territory, about belonging and in some cases about a family or tribal identity which is missing in so many parts of their lives.
Legal crackdowns, harder policing, tougher sentences will not stop gangs – in fact they might help them coalesce as a reaction to these outside forces. So what many people in Liverpool are doing is developing a series of alternative strategies to entice young men into new tribes, families and relationships.
What was happening in the fire station was one outstanding example of this. The events were driven by The Reader Organisation. A group of people who have come together to interest people of all ages and all walks of life in the written word. Why Shakespeare? Well it was as a result of a direct challenge to the organisers, “Why don’t we read what the posh knobs read?” Here is not the place to fully describe this wonderful organisation but you can find out more at www.thereaderonline.co.uk.
Why the Fire Service? Well the fire service is an organisation that does so much more than just prevent and put out fires. It has realised that it is a public service that has lots of down time whilst it waits for emergencies and uses that down time to work with young people –especially young lads who lack male role models and bring them back into society.
Why those young people? Because many of them, not all, would actually have been out on the streets in their gang that night instead of growing from the experience of acting; of entertaining and of being someone.
So we had a good time; they had a good time and some people have been saved from a life of crime and perhaps given a new direction. What’s true for them is true for all of us. Very few people are really bad people. Most people can be brought back into productive society if we find out what the ‘key’ is that unlocks their passion and interest. For some its football – hardly surprising in Liverpool but for some its language; its English; its Shakespeare. And who says that Shakespeare is not out of place; out of date and irrelevant!? Not in Crocky last Thursday he wasn’t.