"Twelve Angry Men" by television writer Reginald Rose is a drama about a jury making its decision on the verdict of a murder trial, and the idea is based on the writer's own experience of being on a jury in 1954. The play was originally broadcast in 1954 and was quickly optioned to a film by Henry Fonda for the 1957 film version in which he starred and produced (his only role as a producer). The film was not a financial success, but earned critical acclaim and is one of those films that has over the years grown in stature. The simplicity of a drama that revolved around 12 people confined in one small room had obvious attractions as a theatre production, and in 1964 the story transferred to the stage and proved to be a very powerful piece of work in these more intimate settings.
This production continues that legacy as, before the drama even starts, director Christopher Hayden and designer Michael Pavelka have created on stage a very simple room setting from the 1950s. There is little there apart from a large table, chairs, windows and some doors. It is this almost claustrophobic setting that immediately pulls the audience right into that room as voyeurs. We also establish right away that this is a hot and humid room with a thunderstorm about to break, and this all adds to the charged atmosphere of the room. The storm does eventually break and watching the rain fall outside the windows is a very nice production touch.
The cast, as you would expect, is a jury of 12 (plus one court official from time to time). The setting is America in the 1950s and, although not specifically mentioned, this is an all white male jury deciding the fate of a young black teenager accused of murdering his father during an argument by stabbing him in the chest. This racial tension had been written by Reginald Rose into the first draft of his television play but removed by the network to placate advertisers. The jury is all male and all white by the writer's choice, as at this point in time women could refuse jury service and black jurors were rarely called upon.
The jury have been directed by the judge to deliver a unanimous verdict of either guilty or not guilty and it has been made clear to them before retiring to decide their verdict that the court will accept no plea recommendations. If guilty is the verdict, then this youth will be executed.
The jury retire to consider their verdict against pretty overwhelming odds. The youth has a history of petty crime, the murder weapon has been accepted as his in court and two witnesses have testified against him. One has said he heard the argument leading to the murder and saw him leaving the scene, and another that she witnesssed the murder. The original jury decision at the very start is 11 to 1 in favour of a guilty verdict. Interestingly, the jury members are never given names and known simply by their jury numbers, and Juror 8 played by Tom Conti is the only man to stand against the guilty verdict. He stands not because he does not believe the youth is not guilty, but because they have been instructed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" any guilty verdict, and he does not believe that they have done this.
This is where the story starts and 12 men who do not know one another slowly begin to re-examine the evidence they heard in court and also for the first time examine one another as people. Andrew Lancel (Juror 3), Robert Duncan (Juror 4) Denis Lill (Juror 10) and Alexander Forsyth (Juror 5) have for me the most developed and interesting characters on stage tonight outside of Tom Conti's role, as what made these people originally vote yes then no as their characters unfold on stage is to me what drives this story along. This is no reflection on the other jurors, as everyone has their own story and influence on the eventual outcome.
The acting from everyone tonight is outstanding and as an audience we are so focused on them onstage that they have to become their on stage parts. This is a powerful piece of drama and there is no hiding from the audience at any part in the production. Watching these characters open up and reveal their inner selves and prejudices is a tribute to the skills of the performers and the quality of writing of the source material.
This is a difficult performance to review, as giving away even small amounts of the story might simply ruin the night for you. The strength of this production is that you really do get involved with the characters as each is an identifiable individual and the story is very detailed. The joy is watching that detail unfold on stage and I would rather you just went to the theatre and experienced this yourself.
Tom Conti is outstanding in his performance tonight and gives a master class in stage acting. At times, he does very little, but small mannerisms and movements are at times all that is required from him to convey a huge amount of meaning. For any young aspiring actors in the audience this is a lesson in how to just fill a stage while doing very little at times. Andrew Lancel is also impressive tonight as Juror 3.
One word of warning though. If you have been for a few pre-theatre refreshments, take note that the table and chairs are on a very slowly rotating circular stage. The changing angles of the tables and chairs is really happening and this slowly changing angle of vision stops the static view that you would otherwise get and gives at times the impression that you are walking round the table and chairs with the cast.
"Twelve Angry Men" is a powerful piece of theatre performed on stage by 12 very competent actors. Just go and see it if you get the chance
Review by Tom King