Contemporary courting

12 Angry Men (Ghostlight Theatre Company)

KSP Theatre

September 9 – 23

Reginald Rose’s iconic “12 Angry Men” is a classic of the theatre. The courtroom drama may be set in 1950s New York, but as brand new not-for-profit community theatre group Ghostlight Theatre Company shows us, the only thing truly dated about the work is its title. While we still have a dozen ‘men with ties’ deciding the fate of a teenager (in this case of a lowered, 16 years of age) accused of murdering his abusive father, this contemporary take includes female performers in some of the roles and the use gender neutral pronouns, amongst other tweaks that easily transport the story into consideration through a modern lens.

As the case’s judge reminds the titular jurors in introduction, “Murder in the first degree—premeditated homicide—is the most serious charge in our criminal courts… your verdict must be unanimous… (and) the death sentence is mandatory in this case”.  While eleven are convinced of his guilt, however, despite the testimony of an alleged eye witness to the killing, one has doubt… and reasonable doubt is a safeguard that has enormous value in the legal system. “This is somebody’s life,” Juror Number 8 tells his peers. “We can’t decide in five minutes.” And so the story continues over two and a bit tense hours (including interval) under Susan O’Toole Cridland’s taut direction which ensures that the audience remains gripped for its duration.

Greg Delchau’s stage design places us firmly within the 1954 court jury room. There is nothing to hide within the confines of the locked room and the resulting tension is engrossing. Far from coming across like a play reading from around its centrepiece table, however, the action is ongoing with natural movement that does not distract from where focus is required. Blocking is effective to ensure authentic physical movement maintains audience interest while adding to the action of rising tensions as the group attempt to come to a consensus through discussion of probability vs possibility, because before DNA and CCTV, there was just speculation.

Even if the evolution of the afternoon’s heat into an Act Two rain storm threatens to overwhelm the audibility of some dialogue, this is a play of words much more than action. Its success relies on its cast in bringing its words to life while creating their own characters, with its range of personalities adding to its conflict. Jon Darbro gives a controlled performance as the central character of the play, Juror 8, the only one to initially vote not guilty, thus preventing an immediate unanimous guilty decision. He effectively balances the architect’s mild-mannered nature with the charisma needed to build a case of reasonable doubt in the minds of others, methodically taking us along for the ride through his reasoning. In contrast, Mark Blackmore balances Juror 3’s entitled rising self-righteousness with the grief of an angry father determined for some sort of justice.

Also of note, Luke Lilley is excellent in portrayal of die-hard baseball fan Juror 7, frustrated by the sceptical caution which forces the group to more carefully consider the evidence before jumping to the initially anticipated hasty verdict. It’s an absorbing performance physicalised by anxious moments to keep us focussed on the fast-talking salesman’s motivations and mindset. John Stibbard also insightfully establishes his character, the elderly Juror 9, as one who may not speak much, but when he does, speaks thoughtful sense arising from quiet observation of the trial’s witnesses. And they are well supported by David Murdoch, Aether Beyond, Mark Blackmore, Lindi Milbourne, Tallis Tutunoa, Greg Delchau, Sandra Harman, Amanda Burgess and Julia Cox as the other jury members we see gradually reconsidering their positions.

Each of the jurors has their own agenda and Murdoch is solid as the calm and methodical, but consequently frustrated, foreman trying to keep the group of headstrong strangers in order, especially when under fire from Harmon’s brash Juror 10, who is without tact or any sense of civic duty. Rude and prejudiced in a deep-seated ‘us versus them’ mentality, Juror 10’s explosive xenophobic rant results in one of the most memorable moments of the play. When, provoked by consideration of the accused’s upbringing in the worst part of town, into unleash about how ‘the kids who crawl outa those places are real trash’, the in-turn movement of other characters turning their back from their various vantage points around the room, creates a clever statement both in and of itself but simultaneously about how far we have come from the context of the story’s first creation.

It is this considered approach to the play’s reimagining, that makes for a powerful production from start to the finish. Indeed, Ghostlight Theatre Company’s “12 Angry Men” is a riveting, rewarding revisit of a classic that not only respects the original text, but finds a place for it from a contemporary perspective. One can now only await with anticipation the new company’s next work.

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