I’ve just got home from another theatre trip, this time to see Twelve Angry Men, which, sadly, closes in a few days – otherwise I’d recommend that you all go and see it. It was an early birthday present from my sisters, and it was so brilliant that I’m writing this review now, when I should probably be going to bed like a normal person.
The play is about a jury in 1950s America, as they try to reach a unanimous verdict in the case of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father. What seems to be an open and shut case soon turns out to be much more complicated than it appears. While eleven of the men come into the room ready and willing to pass a guilty verdict, one, while by no means convinced of the boy’s innocence, nonetheless requests that they take the time to consider their decision, since a guilty verdict will condemn the prisoner to execution in the electric chair.
You might think that twelve men in a room talking would be boring. Not at all – although I will say that if you prefer your theatre with action and/or lots of singing and dancing, this may not be to your taste. The deliberations of the jury reveal more about the men themselves than about the boy they’re judging, who we never see; they’ve all brought their own prejudices and emotional baggage into the room with them, and allow these to impact on the decisions they make. The result is a tension so great that, far from being bored, I ended up on the edge of my seat, and, rather embarrassingly, jumped a mile at one point when there was a sudden clap of thunder on stage.
In a play with no set changes, there was one ingenious touch – the jury table, which begins end-on to the audience, with the foreman at the far end, rotates little by little throughout the performance, but so subtly that you never notice it until you suddenly realise things look a bit different. I think I spotted it moving once in the first half; I didn’t notice it at all in the second. In the same way, the mood and position of those sat around the table shifts little by little, and it’s not until the men stop arguing and take a vote that they, or we, realise the impact of that shift.
This is a play that I think is going to stay with me for some time. Firstly, it’s because it’s a subject that interests me; I feel very strongly about the death penalty and don’t believe it’s ever the right thing to do, but particularly when there’s even a moment’s doubt over the guilt of the person involved. Twelve Angry Men is set in the 1950s but the attitudes of those men when they walk into the room (perfectly summed up by the juror who wants to make the deliberations quick because he has tickets for a baseball game later that evening) are probably just as relevant today. We all lead busy lives, and it’s easy to make quick snap judgments without thinking through the consequences. In the play, the result of this carelessness is a boy losing his life, but even trivial decisions can be damaging if we don’t take the time to give them proper consideration.
I don’t think this play is just about the legal system or the death penalty, although it certainly highlights many issues with both. It’s about humanity and courage, and the importance of standing up for what you believe, even if nobody will stand with you. That one juror, faced with the hostility of the other eleven, could have caved and gone along with their verdict. The fact that he didn’t was inspiring and humbling, and provided a fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking evening.
Now I did promise one angry woman, so here’s my little rant to finish: when did people stop knowing how to behave in the theatre? I mean seriously, you’ve paid good money to be there, could you not sit still and shut up for a couple of hours? My acting career began and ended with a few Christmas nativities at school, but I love the theatre and call me weird but I believe if actors are on stage, the least we can do is show some respect and pay attention.
Tonight, there were the people behind me, who decided to have a chat in the middle of the first half, and the couple next to my sister, who spent the whole evening fidgeting even though the seats were incredibly loud and creaky. And then there were the group in the front row, who were content to stand and continue their conversation long after the announcement that the play was about to begin, and eventually had to be asked to sit down by an usher. Who has to be asked to sit down at the theatre? That’s what you DO at the theatre!
I’d like to finish my rant with a nod to Kevin Spacey, who last week told a theatre-goer whose phone rang in the middle of his performance (really?! you couldn’t turn your phone off?) that if they didn’t answer it, he would. Mr Spacey, I salute you.