For a play with such a tight focus on a single room, Twelve Angry Men has been on quite the journey. In 1954, writer Reginald Rose served on a jury, which fought for eight hours over a manslaughter case. The dramatic potential was obvious, and he used it as the basis for a television play. This caught Henry Fonda’s eye, who made the famous movie version in 1957, and it was then adapted for the London stage in 1964. Twelve Angry Men has been revived and translated around the world since, its one room, one day, twelve men structure proving tautly theatrical.
So it is with this latest production, transferring from Birmingham Rep. A starry cast is led by Martin Shaw - no stranger to legal dramas - as the dissenting voice in a jury deliberating over sending a sixteen-year-old black boy, accused of killing his father, to the electric chair. The evidence sounds solid, but Shaw, as Juror 8 (they all go nameless), has spotted flaws. His numerous reasonable doubts punch holes in the case, worming through the minds, and occasionally hearts, of fellow jurors. These take quite some convincing; “prejudice obscures the truth”, he comments.
We’re in a dusty, shabby backroom of a New York court, with broken blinds and a broken fan, on “the hottest day of the year”. Director Christopher Haydon guides the action sure-handedly, the actors roaming round the room, keeping things fluid. This is aided by a neat bit of staging: the central long table is on a revolve, turning imperceptibly slowly. This solves static sightline issues, and presents us with an ever-changing perspective - what the men must feel is suddenly playing out inside their heads once Juror 8 starts turning over the case.
He’s no crusader, professing not to be convinced of the boy’s innocence, nor his guilt - he just wants talk it through before condemning a man to death… A pillar of reason, and reasonableness, Shaw plays the role with a lovely balance: he appears a gently amused devil’s advocate at times, but also has real gravitas, determined to see justice served. Performances are polished, with Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Hustle) bringing a particular twinkling mischief; for all its high stakes and shouting matches, this is a nimble and frequently funny play.
Rose’s script makes the case for debate and discussion, analytic and lateral thought, curiosity and uncertainty. Against this are pitted the stupid, stubborn, macho and - yes - angry men, most notably the frothingly indignant Jeff Fahey (of Lost) and a throaty Miles Richardson, a man too racist even for the Fifties. They arrive with calcified prejudices and hardened hearts, testosterone positively steaming up the windows. Perhaps such characters’ unthinking wrong-headedness lessens the tension - it’s so obvious who you should be rooting for, who the good guys are, even in a play that’s about not ever really being certain of blame. But with its skilful structure, Twelve Angry Man commands your attention.
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