Lively story about theatre in prisons

Salvatore Striano. Photo: supplied
Salvatore Striano. Photo: supplied

Salvatore Striano's Set Me Free is an interesting and lively story of an individual who rediscovers his dignity.

SET ME FREE: The Story of how
Shakespeare Saved a Life
Salvatore Striano
Text Publishing 


Neapolitan Salvatore Striano has been involved with the Hotheads street gang since a youth, rampaging through the alleyways of Quartieri Spagnoli, within heavy Camorra territory. 

First imprisoned in juvenile detention at the age of 14, he was later on the run in Spain before inevitably being caught. Close to his mother, arrest comes as a relief for both of them, for she will feel less worried knowing he is in relative safety on the inside rather than causing havoc outside.

It is the year 2000, the beginning of a new century, and Striano is almost enjoying the lax prison conditions of Valdemoro, Madrid. Compared to those in Italy, Spanish authority seems a breeze, and he takes up with his fellow Italian inmates. Here he avoids trouble by keeping strictly to ethnic categories, for he knows that to sit at the wrong table in a prison's communal space could be a death wish. Anyway, the Italians are the top dogs, while the Arabs, Turks, Russians and Spaniards follow in the ranks.

Prison is almost self-regulated and absent of guards, and entrepreneurial schemes such as phone smuggling are commonplace. However, threats abound, and prisoners wrap gossip magazines around themselves in place of armour. Striano's HIV positive cellmate also puts him on high alert, as he is viewed as a ``chemical weapon''.

Later Striano is transferred to Rome's high-security Rebibbia Prison, where boredom is another threat. Depressed, he decides to go cold turkey from his drops as he is tired of being a ``dull-eyed rag doll . . . Swollen, grey, with broken capillaries, my entire face covered in a patina of failure''. Nights are long and full of soul-searching.

This all changes with the offer of joining a theatre company, based amongst these maximum security prisoners and run by real-life figure, Fabio Cavalli. Suddenly Striano has a new lease on life, embracing acting and reading. Baudelaire, Dante and Shakespeare introduce him to worlds of fabulousness and hellish fantasy; Beckett he avoids at all costs for his morbid lingering within a life sentence of misery.

The advent of theatre in prisons has taken off in Italy, where there are more than 100 theatre troupes, including three within Rebibbia. Like with Striano, many of these rough gangsters find it opens up a passion in them, one where they can channel angry energy or self-pitying wallowing into something positive. They frequently perform to the general public to great acclaim, both normalising the prison environment and perhaps romanticising it. Some of these drug-traffickers and murderers have claimed a new identity in the public eye, and go on to star in high-rating films such as Caesar Must Die, featuring Striano, which won the Golden Bear award in the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.

Striano's company performs The Tempest, which has been translated into a 17th century Neopolitan dialect. For him in the role of Ariel this play has huge personal meaning. He writes at length on the possibility of forgiveness, recognising love, and starting anew. He finds power in words, and especially in the beauty of poetry. In his proclamations he seeks the profound.

One cannot help but be cynical that such a man's florid words will translate into continued positive action, and the story itself is fairly inconsistent in the way it leaps from revealing pieces of narrative to withholding others (more of a backstory would help and be fascinating). Likewise he holds a fairly high opinion of his own acting abilities. Nevertheless, his acting career appears to have taken off, and so perhaps he has forsaken the gangster life once and for all.

Set Me Free is termed a novel but is more non-fiction, tracing the author's own misadventures from Valdemoro to Rebibbia. Another recent work which focuses on prison theatre, also specifically centred around The Tempest, is Margaret Atwood's Hagseed, a thorough and comprehensive reworking of the original plot. While Set Me Free is lighter and less academic, it is an interesting and lively story of an individual who rediscovers his dignity through a much more satisfying tweaking of his life direction.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Set Me Free, by Salvatore Striano, to give away courtesy of Text Publishing. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘Set Me Free’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, December 12.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, courtesy of  Bloomsbury were: George Davis, Ellen Goodlet and Paula Griannah, all of Dunedin.

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