And the verdict is ... a superb production
Strictly speaking 12 Angry Men isn’t a courtroom drama at all since the action takes place in a jury room following a murder trial.
But like the best plays in which a court setting is used to explore not just an individual crime but the greater ills of a society, this back room drama which plays out among jurors after the lawyers have argued their cases is a compelling story of conflicting evidence, personalities and values.
Adapted to the stage by Reginald Rose from his original television play, 12 Angry Men is a cautionary tale about the dangers of rushing to judgment and the consequences of mob justice.
Events unfold “on the hottest day of the year” in a claustrophobic jury room after an unseen teenager from an unnamed New York City urban war-zone is tried for stabbing his abusive petty criminal father to death.
The deft and engaging production of the play currently being staged by the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society assuredly illuminates 12 Angry Men’s central theme — how the assumption of guilt can all too easily eclipse the presumption of innocence.
The drama hinges on whether the jurors will allow themselves to entertain some entirely reasonable doubts about the prosecution’s supposedly open-and-shut case.
For far from being the foregone conclusion 11 of the 12 jurors believe it to be in an initial ballot, the question of the teen’s guilt is thrown open to question when the sole holdout demonstrates the evidence against him may only be about as watertight as the Titanic’s hull.
A conviction carries with it a mandatory death sentence. So the insistence of Juror Eight (very ably played by Deborah Pharoah-Williams) on methodically reviewing and scrutinising the prosecution’s case is born of both urgency and an unwavering sense of her civic and personal duty as an American.
“We’re talking about somebody’s life here,” the character says. “We can’t decide in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong?”
What ensues as the jurors sweat, argue and, of course, grow increasingly angry is a taut, intelligent and hugely absorbing drama.
The audience learns the evidence second-hand as the jurors debate it and as logic begins to vie with emotion for supremacy in their minds as well as ours.
Brought to life by a uniformly superb cast, the jury members — who, in a nod to the times, now comprise eight men and four women — are defined in terms of the passions, prejudices and life experiences which taint their ability to render an impartial verdict based on evidence alone.
There is the opinionated, overbearing self-made man (Stephen Notman, genuinely affecting in a standout performance) whose view of the case is coloured by his own son’s rebelliousness and rejection of his authority.
There is a small-business owner simmering with racial resentment (Paige Hallett in a chilling study in blinkered hatred: she brings tremendous empathy to her three-dimensional portrayal of a role which, in less capable hands, could easily have resulted in a strident one-note caricature).
There is the unflappable stockbroker (Christine Whitestone) who has, she believes, arrived at her verdict of guilty every bit as rationally as Juror Eight has reached her dissenting view.
And then there is the smart-ass marmalade salesman (Maxwell King), eager for the jury to arrive at a verdict — any verdict — just so he can leave in time to attend that evening’s baseball game.
A vapid, vacillating advertising man (Charles Doyle) is close to being a walking, fast-talking rebuke to the very concept of objective truth.
His presence on the jury is offset by the contemplative older man (Shawn Angiers), and refugee watchmaker (Liz Knight) whose mind proves to be as precision-tooled as the time pieces she repairs.
Like the defendant, Juror Five (Micah Jimenez) is the product of a slum upbringing — and bitterly resents the suggestion that everyone from a disadvantaged background grows up to be a criminal.
Reuben Flood, Che Barker and Adam Gauntlett round out the cast as jurors whose initial “go along to get along” approach to the deliberations gradually gives way to gnawing doubts and growing moral qualms.
Overseen by first-time producer Natacha Kneeland, the set design, lighting and production values create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere in the closed-in environment of the jury room.
In his debut outing as a director, Owain Johnston has helmed the proceedings with ingenuity, insight and considerable brio.
He has crafted a spellbinding production of a play with resonances which extend far beyond its jury room setting — which in fact speak to many of our present-day anxieties.
For by reminding not only Americans but all of us of our responsibilities to the ideals which underpin the foundations of a free society 12 Angry Men remains both a timeless work and an especially timely one at this particular moment in history.
• 12 Angry Men runs March 15-18 at Daylesford Theatre. Tickets, $30, available at ptix.bm
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