It’s been 54 years since the last person was hanged in the UK, but it was as recent as 2004 that capital punishment was abolished under all circumstances. It’s the ultimate punishment, the ultimate deterrent, and has always been a source of passionate argument either in favour or against, depending on your view. But supposing you knew someone, or had to work alongside someone, or lived with someone, who had committed a crime so heinous that the State had decided their life had to be terminated? Would you loathe them for their crime? Pity them for facing their unavoidable fate? Befriend them in a last chance of human support?
This devised play takes Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol as its inspiration, that haunting, haunted work analysing reaction to the death penalty by the prisoners. The condemned man had killed the thing he loved; but each man kills the thing he loves, so it’s a case of There but for the Grace of God. And that’s what the audience feels too; without knowing the crime that our prisoner has committed, we can’t have a truly informed reaction to his plight. And it’s the not knowing that really makes this a curiously intense and thought-provoking drama.
When you arrive in the church, you’re disconcerted from the start. Should you sit in the pews? Should you sit in the choirstalls? There are various prisoners loafing their way around the chancel, but a burly guard has his back to you and you wonder, do I dare walk past him and sit down? You do. The prisoners are enjoying (if that’s the right word) their free association time, so you eavesdrop on conversations, games, petty squabbles, and so on. One solitary prisoner seems very uncomfortable in this environment; we later discover that he has a great aptitude for art and an addiction to accuracy –- thus I deduced he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Into this melting pot arrives the Accused; a man with a reputation so bad that (almost) all the other prisoners avoid him, swear at him, despise him. Only the autistic prisoner doesn’t avoid him, but only because there’s still 23 minutes of his free time left.
There are four guards, each with a different attitude to the prisoner. One detests him for what he has done, and doubtless will show him no mercy at any time he’s under his tender care. Another treats him like any other prisoner – which is with great kindness as she is the nurturing type. A third is ghoulishly fascinated by him – almost a fan – and wants to know how it feels to have your own death hovering so near. The fourth, whilst naturally an enforcer, is prepared to bend the odd rule to make his last few days more bearable.
Apart from Alexander Forrester-Coles, playing the Accused, and Jake Statham as the cleaner, this is very much an ensemble piece. Mr Forrester-Coles plays the role as the archetypal strong and silent type. He combines the mystery of the man with an essential dignity which was most impressive to witness. His self-protecting barriers are all up; refusing to answer questions, or to rise to the bait of taunting prisoners. But he will attack back if he identifies a weak spot in one of his critics’ characters, and as he gets closer to his death he does open up a little to reveal something of the man behind the mask. It’s a very strong and compelling performance and I was totally convinced by him. Just as the Accused is the man that everyone notices, Mr Statham was also excellent as the man no one notices, the cleaner; an outsider in a different way, talking out of turn to the audience as if we’re his mates, a kind of Everyman character. I would have liked to see more of him as the intensity of the play develops, to get his Everyman take on what’s going on, rather than just having him “bookend” the action. Technically, as not the best hearer in the world, I really appreciated the clarity of his speech which definitely helped his characterisation to shine through; a minor character but a major performance.
What impressed me most about the piece was how extremely high the overall standard of performance was; in previous years, there have always been one or two people whose range and complexity has left just a little to be desired but this cast is the closest I’ve seen to a “dream team” since I’ve been watching these student plays.
Kate Morgan-Jones stands out as the ringleader of the prisoner ruffians. Belligerent, argumentative, determined; you really wouldn’t want to cross her. Offering a very different characterisation, I thought Robert Barnes was superb as the loner prisoner; again very credible, his delivery was beautifully paced throughout, and you could see the complexity of his thought processes straining to get through his expressions. I also really enjoyed D B Gallagher’s junkie prisoner, responding with quiet desperation to any threat that endangers his access to drugs. Jac Burbidge also excelled in his variety of roles, both as the firebrand guard speechless with horror at having to deal with the Accused, and as the ever-so-helpful priest exchanging pleasantries with the executioner (a delightfully understated performance from Georgi McKie).
I was very impressed with Radostin Radev as the ghoulishly fascinated guard; he played him with style, assurance and just a perfect touch of eerie nastiness. Xara Chisano’s performance as the fourth guard enabled you to see all her inner conflicts, which created a truly fascinating character from not many words; this was another very assured and realistic performance. And Ellen Tritton portrayed the well-meaning guard with great clarity and simplicity; I loved the way that whenever any of the prisoner’s rejected her help she carried on regardless without ever taking it personally – a very strong characterisation.
Everyone created a very memorable impression of their own characters and their part in the play. You could pick this production up and plonk it down in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe and it would make good money. I went home full of my own thoughts and responses to the issues raised by the play and the various characters. Exceptional stuff! Congratulations all!