If you were going to write one literary work to leave your mark on the world, then Reginald Rose certainly nailed it with Twelve Angry Men. He wrote far more of course, but alone this play is an impressive legacy.
Many are familiar with the script from the film starring Henry Fonda, but like a well interpreted Hamlet this play bears regular revisiting. What struck me first in Bill Kenwright's
End transfer to the Garrick Theatre was how contemporary the
conflict seems despite 1950s dress and décor.
What struck me next was the insightfulness of the language and Rose’s
deft carving of character. Then I was just plain jealous: green with envy such
a strong line-up of actors had gathered in a rehearsal room for x weeks with a
sensitive director to crack open this hard-edged, variegated puzzle; sharing
their hunger and talent on a text, and with colleagues, worthy of their best
work. I would have loved to be a fly on
the wall to witness the combination of testosterone and craftsmanship put to
good use; no doubt with a healthy splash of humour. Better still I’d like to work on a female
equivalent - if only such a piece existed!
There is not a weak link in Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Twelve Angry Men. In an increasingly hot room their individual and collective assumptions, intelligence and morals are tested - as each man’s prejudices are peeled back and held up for examination. My excitement was enhanced by knowing the quality of the production means the same careful stripping and building went on in the rehearsal room amongst acting peers as much as it did for the characters in live performance. And the result is that the play, in all its complexity, truly lives with this volatile and energetic company; every ugly, courageous, amusing, shocking, suffocating, compassionate, vibrant and illuminating element of it. Bang, bang, bang swing the arguments, clash, clash, clash collide the personalities… as all the time the pressure of responsibility to find ‘truth beyond reasonable doubt’ in a murder trial builds because one man dares to swim against the tide; one man kick-starts a more subtle evaluation of the facts and a brave reflection upon our emotional baggage and socialisation.
Since, I’ve been wondering about the experiences people have on a jury. I wonder if it is often that tough. And one can only hope in important cases that it is, if our system is to work as designed. I won’t be the first to remark that Twelve Angry Men finds echoes in To Kill A Mockingbird. Both concern the trial of someone disadvantaged. Both show that one gentle, ordinary man can set himself apart by his integrity and ability to remove ego from a debate – and in doing so, display the qualities of greatness we equate with the likes of Schindler or Mandela. This man is also a positive influence on the group or community so that others locate their own potential for greater honesty and generosity of spirit. One story has a happier result, but the point is well made in both that the pursuit of honour requires a step by step effort, however bad or challenging the odds.
When I saw Twelve Angry Men last Saturday evening I had only just returned to
London from – carrying with me
a shamefully vivid image of the list of names of the 80,000 Bohemian and
Moravian Jews who perished in the holocaust, eerily painted on the Pinkas
Synagogue walls. Heartbreakingly
poignant, too, were the children’s drawings done by the innocents confined to
the concentration camp in Terezin; most of whom didn’t survive. I could not help but be reminded of the
famous maxim that “the only thing necessary for the triumph
of evil is
for good men to do nothing”. It
seems Rose understood this operates as much for individual cases as it does for
society in general and, come to think of it, crudely applied political ideology. So despite a thoroughly riveting and engaging
evening of theatre, I suspect it would be a rare individual who left the auditorium
without feeling personally challenged to remain aware of the blocks, presumptions
or resentments which threaten at any time to cloud judgements of our fellow-man.
And the ‘lesson’ runs all the deeper
because Rose doesn’t lecture, he simply shows fallible humans in action. Prague
A particularly beguiling feature of the production is the excellent design by Michael Pavelka. The action takes place in one room, the centrepiece a large wooden table. As the debate progresses the table literally turns – providing jurors and director with new perspectives and opportunities for focus, and simultaneously creating a powerful metaphor… a metaphor which highlights fairness and respect for others (the defendant included) requires adjustments to our first impressions, involves reconsideration of judgements which, if more wisely examined, will reveal broader truths and less shallow relationships. In the ‘table turning’ the audience sees a movement from blandness to detail, from negativity to optimism, from denial to acknowledgement, from dismissive irresponsibility and intolerance to moral and human consciousness and, ultimately, justice. This piece of design is the simplest, yet the most effective, dramatic tool I have seen in a long time.
The splendid team who have created this enriching experience include:
Director: Christopher Haydon
Designers: Michael Pavelka, David Harris, Jan Bench, Mark Howland and Dan Hoole
Crew: Erin Gilley, Mary Howland, Terry King, Martin Rodges, Matthew Cullum, Jessica Alice McGloin and Tim Henshaw
Cast: Martin Shaw, Robert Vaughn, Jeff Fahey, Nick Moran, Luke Shaw, David Calvitto, Paul Antony-Barber, Edward Franklin, Robert Blythe, Miles Richardson, Martin Turner, Owen O’Neill, Jason Riddington (and understudy, Jon Carver).
You can’t be an actor and a critic so it’s true I only write arts blogs about productions I largely admire. Yet in a
landscape where there’s always so much
to see and appreciate, it is an immense pleasure to chance upon a dramatic
piece which is satisfying and compelling in every conceivable respect. London
And if that’s a bias judgement, I challenge you to look for yourself and get back to me!
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