Saturday, 3 May 2014

Twelve Angry Men - Melville Theatre Company (3 May 2014)

New York. 1957. August.

A jury room.

It’s hot. There’s no airconditioning.

Things are about to get a lot hotter as twelve strangers file in.

The fate of a 16 year old boy is on the line. Accused of stabbing his father to death. A guilty verdict means the death penalty.

It’s an open and shut case…

Except for one dissenter.

So begins the classic play Twelve Angry Men brought to life by the Melville Theatre Company.

It’s refreshing in an age of multiple CSI and other crime procedurals where murders ever more heinous are graphically detailed and dissected, to revisit a simple, well written character study such as this.

It’s classic drama. Take twelve people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, put them in a claustrophobic environment where they are forced to make a unanimous decision then watch the fireworks as prejudices and assumptions bubble to the surface. The stakes? Nothing less than a kid’s life.

Emotion versus logic. Facts versus assumptions. Arguments about what exactly is ‘reasonable doubt’. The play is carefully constructed to call the ‘obvious’ guilty verdict into question and ultimately to completely overturn this. All because one man wanted to know more, to talk a while because taking another person’s life no matter what their background, no matter what they might have done deserves thought and consideration.

That man is Juror 8 played by Gino Cataldo who slowly sways his fellow jurors calmly using reason in the face of emotion, bigotry, and apathy.

His main rival is Juror 3, played by Phil Barnett, who is hot-headed, temperamental and doesn’t want to waste any more time than he has to in this stifling room.

The play has a lovely symmetry in that it’s Juror 3 who ends up the sole dissenting voice before caving in whereas Juror 8 started isolated and belittled.

The set is simple – the juror’s table and chairs with a broken fan, a water cooler, and one window opened for blessed relief from the heat. Everyone is in suits, coats quickly shed as the temperature rises.

Allegiances and the voting tally changes as accusations fly and home truths are revealed. The request for various votes throughout the play details the shifting ground and gives the opportunity for dismay and disgust as people are called to account for changing their minds. In this there are, deliberately, more forceful characters than others. But even the meekest gets to have his say. 

The standouts in the cast, for me, were Barnett as Juror 3 who is all coiled anger and resentment as he thunders away at the others as his position is slowly eroded. He is appropriately loud and physical. The source of his character’s rage is nicely revealed at the end as all resistance leeches away in the play’s final moments.

Michael Dorman as Juror 7 is also very strong as Juror 3’s prime ally for much of the play until unexpectedly reversing his vote. Willy Smeets as Juror 11, the immigrant with a heightened sense of justice, adds moments of humour, something that is pretty light on the ground and therefore welcomed. Phil Lord has the big speech revealing his character’s bigotry late in proceedings that literally takes the air out of the room. It’s delivered with a gusto that makes it all the more horrifying. Juror 4, Alan Kennedy, adds a certain gravitas as he is convinced of the boy’s guilt but plays this with his own form of reasoning to counter Juror 8’s and not the bluster of Jurors 3, 7 and 10. His change of heart is telling and well conveyed. Cataldo is solid in the pivotal role of Juror 8 but perhaps too calm and measured. It’s a tricky role as his main antagonists have much showier parts.

Indeed this is a solid production all round, directed by Vanessa Jensen, starring Garry Davies, Cary Hudson, Warren McGrath, Phil Barnett, Alan Kennedy, Brendan Ellis, Will Gawned, Michael Dorman, Gino Cataldo, Tom Rees, Phil Lord, Willy Smeets and Jeff Hansen, and on at the Melville Theatre until 17 May.

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