St Paul’s School Theatre take a series of testimonies from former Death Row prisoners in the States and, through interweaving monologues, create a powerful story of police brutality and incompetence, biased judges, lazy defence lawyers, and a corrupt judicial system. The director, rather disingenuously, claims that ‘the play does not take a side, either pro or con, on the death penalty’. However, it’s impossible to sustain faith in judicial murder after seeing it.
There are six stories of people from a variety of backgrounds. In this play, black kids are arrested for murder because they are black; petty criminals because they are the easiest option; a son because he is the nearest. And then there are the wives, husbands, parents caught up in the process.
The play divides into three sections – arrest and trial, experience in prison, appeal and release. In the context of a complex ensemble piece it is perhaps invidious to single out stories and performances, but that of Kerry is particularly horrendous. Media suggestions that he is homosexual lead to repeated rape on Death Row; his brother died in a fight over Kerry’s case, and his parents said it is his fault; branding with a knife; suicide attempts. It was all the more harrowing for George Colligan’s committed performance.
The material is powerful, but the production style is somewhat static in design and lighting. It is ‘over-significant’ and a little lighter naturalism would go a long way. The character chosen as the intermediary between the audience and the stories, the poet Delbert, is a pretentious pain in the ass. At the end he asserts, without a trace of irony, that despite all this the USA is a great country, because these people got out of prison eventually, and their survival is inspirational. Oh, dear…