Philobiblon: Excellent politics doesn't make great theatre

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Excellent politics doesn't make great theatre

I would really like to be able to recommend The Exonerated, a new production of which has just opened at The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London. Its politics are exemplary, the stories -- told in their own words -- of the six Americans who spent between two and 20 years on death row for crimes they were subsequently proven not to have committed, are appropriately harrowing and uplifting. As an evening of politics, it can't be faulted.

As an evening at the theatre, however, it has a number of problems. Chief among these is the fact that here in Britain, this is a production that will cater chiefly to the already converted. Few if any of the audience members are like to be in favour of the use of the death penalty; few will be unaware that large parts of the American legal system are corrupt, racist and utterly untrustworthy. It has little new to tell them.

Particularly egregious examples of abuses -- the account of the man who has just found his parents murdered, their throats slit, being forced to look at graphic photos of their bodies, or of the obviously intellectually limited 18-year-old black man browbeaten into confessing to taking part in an armed robbery that led to the death of a policeman, on the expectation of then being allowed to go home -- might produce gasps from the audience, but this is a story that anyone who reads British quality newspapers is entirely familiar with.

The actors present a script derived entirely from interviews with the victims of the US "justice" system and from legal transcripts. Supporting this format, they are apparently reading their lines, or at least flicking over the pages, an action that is both distracting and annoying. The sound effects – slamming prison doors, buzzing electric chairs – are also heavy- handed and unsubtle. If we are hearing transcripts of words, they also make little sense.

While this method of "writing" has been used to good effect in several recent productions, here it runs into a serious obstacle. The convicted innocents are -- inevitably in a system that relies heavily on money to determine guilt or innocence -- the very poor, the ill-educated and those of limited intelligence. They do not always make their own best advocates. READ MORE


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This play is currently showing at my university here and a friend asked if I wanted to go. I was ambivilent because like you said, it largely preaches to the converted and I'm already converted against the death penalty (and used to work for an anti-death penalty lawyer) so I think you're right on here.

And I totally agree with excellent politics doesn't necessarily make great ANYthing... theatre or movies. I have some friends who'll go see stuff and LOVE it just because of the politics. The movie Bread and Roses is one I had a similar reaction to. Terrible acting, predictable, superficial plot... just not that great. And yet people loved it because it was about organizing for a fair wage. [shrug]

I agree. I think you've got to expect more.

3/05/2006 12:21:00 pm  

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