Theatre Royal Brighton
Jeremy Malies in East Sussex
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” said William Faulkner. That my companions and I were arguing heatedly about capital punishment on the train home from this play shows that the late Bill Kenwright kept his sense of topicality as a producer right to the end. Time and again—and in a country that hasn’t seen a state execution since 1964—this wonderful production which has retained the original setting (New York of 1955) threw up parallels for a contemporary UK audience.
The company: Photo credit: Jack Merriman.
It should be remembered that Lee Anderson, a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, is a vociferous supporter of the death penalty, and though she softened her position after being ridiculed by a satirist on television, leadership hopeful Priti Patel continues to be associated with it.
In the opening moments, director Christopher Haydon has the voice of the unseen judge stress to the jury (we are surely a larger jury ourselves) that this is a binary situation: the accused will walk out of the court a free man or fry in the electric chair.
The first view of Michael Pavelka’s closely observed period set is flooded in a warm painterly light (Chris Davey) with hints of sepia in which the faces of several of the actors appear blanched by previous lack of sunlight and the ordeal of the trial. An empty El train (sound by Andy Graham) deafens us momentarily. The duration of its passing and what can or can’t be seen through its unlit windows will be vital to what the jury decides.
Speaking of the accused (a 16-year-old from a broken home) one of the jurors says early on that: “These kids need to be slapped down before they make trouble”. He describes Juror 8 (Patrick Duffy) who is the one not-guilty voter at the beginning as a “bleeding heart liberal”. Would this be 1950s shorthand for our own term “woke”? I hope not because Number 8, an architect, while being candid about his social conscience is eminently logical and visual in his analysis as befits his profession.
Patrick Duffy as Juror Eight:
Photo credit: Jack Merriman.
Haydon’s direction (he is bold in using much real-time) is strong as Duffy, timed by one of his peers, paces out the movements of a neighbour at the time of the crime. Elsewhere, Duffy impresses by suggesting that his character knows exactly how to stifle rows but also how to provoke debate, not because he is convinced of his own insight or sees himself as a latter-day Clarence Darrow (referenced once) but because he wants the accused to have a fair shake for the first time in his young life.
There are no secrets in a jury room is a common aphorism. But this production cleverly leaves much of the social backdrop only sketched for us. What was the population of Harlem like in 1955? Does it really matter? There is one piece of what I took to be ethnicity-blind casting; Juror 5 (Samarge Hamilton) is black alongside eleven white men. At no time are we told whether the victim and his son are black, Latino, Polish, Irish or indeed any immigrant group. The prejudice is so basic that it could be against any element of society, as one of the jurors alleges that this group is breeding five times faster than their neighbours in adjacent neighbourhoods. There are also repugnant lines such as: “Let’s get him before his type gets us!”
Much of Graham’s work on set design is done for him by simple logic and the stage directions, but he helps Haydon produce constant movement (the alpha males circle each other continuously) with artful placement of benches and a table for one person. There is a running gag that none of the fixtures and fittings (not even the windows) are functioning properly with the exception of the water fountain. But even this cast could not quite convey the supposed stifling heat!
The most uplifting moments are when the men stand in turn and face the wall to show their disapproval of Juror Three (Tristan Gemmill). Gemmill has perhaps the biggest speech in the play when he describes the breakdown of relations with his son who has probably recognised his father for a bigot. The man has projected loathing of his son onto the accused.
I don’t know whether it’s Haydon’s direction or the general excellence of the cast but when they enter, the men are able to show that they have already been together as a close if dysfunctional group for many days. Haydon (he has worked with associate director Tim Welton) ensures that the numerous physical altercations are all convincing. Costumes are precise and thoughtful, notably those of spivvy (is there such a term in the US?) Michael Greco as Juror Seven whose tickets to watch Ralph Branca pitch for the Yankees are burning a hole in his pocket.
I have deliberately not mentioned the luminous peerless 1957 Sidney Lumet film version. The piece I’m reviewing was written by CBS staffer Reginald Rose as a play for television in 1954 soon after he had done a stint of jury service. It was turned into a successful straight stage play within a matter of months. Any production should be judged on that text as written and its production history.
I’ve seen recent criticism of the play that dismisses it as being dated for having an all-male panel. Surely, scenes such as jurors berating each other for changing their vote simply to reach a verdict rather than as a reaction to new or reinterpreted evidence are so elemental that they transcend gender? There are similar exchanges about American ideals and the intentions of those who framed the Constitution that will not date any time soon. This is a durable, provocative and profound play that remains relevant. I’m delighted that it is one of the last things that will go down on Bill Kenwright’s formidable ledger of achievements.