I really want you to find your way along to Hope Mill Theatre. It’s a lovely fringe venue, not far from Piccadilly, with a well set out bar area and an accommodating, flexible, audience-friendly theatre space.
I also want you to see their latest production, The Exonerated. It’s a tremendously well acted ensemble verbatim piece about injustice and the death penalty. Never mind that the setting is the United States of America, who would deny that current British politics leaves us no more than one atrocity (or one populist Prime Minister) from concerted moves for the reintroduction of capital punishment in the UK?
All that said, I do have some reservations about the production. Writers, Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen interviewed 40 survivors of Death Row before putting the play together from six of the lives they’d mined for material. The telling of multiple true-life stories on a single theme brings with it some significant staging problems (compare Out of Joint and the Royal Court’s 2005 production of “Talking to Terrorists” – a verbatim piece by Robin Soans).
One major issue lies in the sheer volume and richness of the raw material – so many stories shouting an urgent need to be told and honoured. It must have involved agonising editorial choices to reduce these tales to six human journeys through hell. Nevertheless, as with Soans’s play, the overall effect is episodic, so that an audience (no matter how gripped by the horrifying anecdotes being shared) is never quite able to engage and be carried on the emotional journey of any one of these people, whose lives have been so cruelly and irrevocably disrupted and damaged. This is not to say that we don’t feel for them, but that their competing narratives prevent us committing fully to the dramatic arc of any one of them; each in his or her own way, a noble survivor of legal travesty.
Director, Joseph Houston makes an interesting, comprehensible, but ultimately problematic decision to mount the production as though it were a Netflix ‘true crime’ documentary. The audience enters to either side of the cage of a prison exercise yard (serving also as interrogation room, courtroom etc.) Jessica Staton’s clever design gives the effect of sitting in witness to an execution (and there is one, brief but powerful, scene in which this is driven home by three stylised electrocutions).
A largish TV screen is mounted downstage centre, well above head height – and here we have the Netflix element. The devil, they say, has all the best tunes. In the case of Grant Archer’s skillfully crafted film clips, the ‘best tunes’ include close-ups, deft editing, acoustic and visual effects, and amplification. Mixed-media theatre productions always run the risk of the technology overpowering the “live” action. When the devil has all the best tunes, it’s not wise to give him the best lines as well.
The most emotionally powerful moments of these stories, splendidly performed by an able cast (hats off to Jane Deitch’s casting), are up on the screen, not out on the stage. On stage, the actors recreate past details of crimes, interrogations, trials, prison life. This is all performed to a high standard, but they are picking up the crumbs of life-shattering events. Each time we cut from screen to stage, the ear takes a few seconds to adjust to the different timbres of “live” human voices. Moreover, as the performance goes on, we come to expect the meat of the drama to be delivered from the screen, so that “live” action scenes feel like interludes scattered distractingly through the main event.
That said, there is a great deal to be admired here. Houston is clearly a talented director who has drawn committed, sensitive performances from his cast.
As one might expect, the lessons of the true life tales teach us that it is unwise to be different or poor or black (and especially unwise to be all three). Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, spirituality (including faith in God) offers some strength or consolation to more than one of these victims of a flawed and occasionally corrupt system. God bless America, as the saying goes.
The price of a ticket will be £10 soundly invested in food for thought.★ ★ ★
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play The Exonerated is at Hope Mill Theatre from 6 to 16 June 2019.