In a downtown restaurant in Milan, a group of actors are celebrating
the first performance of their new show. As one might expect for a
musical version of Herman Hesse's Buddhist novel, Siddhartha, the cast
for what is an an unashamedly commercial mix of Bollywood and pop video
theatrics are young, beautiful and bursting with post-show energy.
Earlier that evening, the young stars gave a dynamic performance of
Siddhartha – The Musical at a huge theatre complex in front of an
invited audience of friends, family and assorted co-producers of the
show, including representatives of the New York-based Broadway Asia
International. Such serious interest in the play bodes well for
Siddhartha – The Musical's Edinburgh showcase, which opens at the end
of the month as part of the Assembly Rooms Edinburgh Festival Fringe
programme, putting an international spotlight on something which has
already wowed audiences in Italy and beyond.
Overseeing the post-show festivities with equal measures of ebullience
are writer/director Isabella Biffi and producer Gloria Grace Alanis.
Biffi is an Italian musical star, Alanis a Mexican ex model who settled
in Italy. With successful careers under their belt, somewhere along the
way the two women bonded over Buddhism. Together they are a force of
nature, and take Siddhartha – The Musical very seriously indeed.
“It is the message of the performance that is important,” Alanis
translates for Biffi in excitably broken English. “Whatever happens to
you in the world, love and peace are the important things.”
These might sound like lofty ambitions for a commercial musical, but,
as Biffi nods in rapid agreement across the dinner table as the pair
flash the widest of smiles, you get the sense that there really is
something deeper at play here.
The next morning in L'Opera Prison is as far away from the glamour of
the night before as one can imagine. It is here, however, among the
1400 inmates of one of the biggest maximum security prisons in Europe,
where Siddhartha – The Musical began. Ushered into a large, if somewhat
more makeshift theatre space than the lavish arena the play was
performed in the night before, we're greeted by seven inmates, who
perform several scenes from Siddhartha for us.
What we see may be rougher in terms of physical technique, but in terms
of spirit, determination and rough-hewn athleticism, the L'Opera
performance adds a new resonance and depth to a show which is
effectively about one man's quest for self-knowledge as he goes about
the world. In this respect, this version of Siddhartha – The Musical is
theatre at its purest.
When the performers sit lined up across the stage to talk to us, it's
hard to equate these focused, beatific and near evangelical-sounding
men with the crimes they have committed. Given that 1300 of the 1400
prisoners confined in L'Opera are serving life sentences, those crimes
must be very serious indeed. Yet, when the men talk, while there's a
certain understandable swagger to their bearing which isn't that far
removed from the professional actors letting off steam the night
before, they sound transformed. As well they might.
Siddhartha – The Musical was developed by Biffi with the prisoners as
part of an ongoing theatre programme that has presented a series of
shows over the last seven years. With many of the men being involved in
the project from the start, you get the sense that Siddhartha has been
the pinnacle of their achievements thus far.
Many of these former hardened criminals have clearly softened over the
years, and some have themselves become Buddhists. It was the prisoners
too who suggested to Biffi and Alanis that they take the show out into
the world in a way that they will never be able to perform it.
“Before we did these workshops,” says one man who we've just watched
play the Narrator as if his life depended on it, “a lot of therapists
came in, but we are lifers for a reason, and they couldn't get through.
But the workshops opened my heart.”
In the clamour to talk to a rare audience not made up of fellow
prisoners, the same message, again translated by Alanis, comes over
again and again.
“Before,” says a younger inmate, “I was a bad boy, but when I joined
the workshops I became another person. I'm still a boy,” he laughs,
“but I'm a good boy now.”
This is the message Biffi and Alanis were so keen to explain the night
before. As one of the prison performers puts it, “We want to give the
message to the world that everyone can have a second opportunity. When
I get out of prison, I don't want to be seen as a prisoner anymore. I
want to become a good citizen, and do something of value.”
The nearest comparison with such a set-up is with Barlinnie, the
Glasgow prison that set up a radical art-based rehabilitation programme
in the 1970s. That scheme transformed convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle
into an artist and became something of a cause celebre before being
quietly wound down. In Milan, however, under Biffi and Alanis'
guidance, the message of Siddhartha – The Musical looks set to go on.
Future plans include touring the show to twenty-eight prisons in
Europe. A docudrama is also being planned to tell the story of how
taking part in the prison theatre project changed the men's lives as a
How any of this will translate to audiences watching the professional
staging of Siddhartha – The Musical in the hurly burly of Edinburgh in
August remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it has arguably already
achieved its goal.
“We are so grateful to have been part of this community,” says the
inmate who plays the Narrator in the L'Opera prison version. “We're
aware that we've done bad things in the past, but now we are a part of
this, we can enjoy a new life.”
Siddhartha – The Musical, Assembly Rooms, July 31-Aug 24, 6.10-7.20pm
The Herald, July 22nd 2014