Culture | The truth about innocence

Players' 12 Angry Men reveals the frailty of evidence

Made famous by Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film, 12 Angry Men was originally performed as a 1954 teleplay, scripted by the American film and television writer Reginald Rose. This enduring courtroom drama is now being revived once again by our very own Players’ Theatre. A fascinating exploration of one bastion of democracy – trial by jury – its subject is dramatically widened to incorporate the impossibly frail distinctions between fact and subjective emotions, transcending the confines of setting and plot.

From beginning to end, the audience observes a 12-man jury trapped in a solitary room. We, like the jurors, cannot leave until a decision is made. The question: Is an unnamed young man to be found guilty or not guilty of murdering his father? Left to interpret, debate, and get suitably angry about the case, we follow the intricacies of colliding perspectives. One juror votes not guilty, opposing the others’ guilty verdicts. Thus unfolds the quest to unfold the truth and to consider the life-or-death implications of the term “considerable doubt.”

Of course, the play is dated, for Canadian citizens at least, by the impending form of punishment: the death penalty. However, not only is this obscene punitive device still in place just south of the border, but life imprisonment, whilst not death per se, amounts to as much in many cases.

This system has survived for a reason – there is certainly a use for this legalistic form, even whilst it is fraught with so much danger. Politically, ideologically, socially, we still regard the gathering of evidence, the debate of this evidence, and the presentation of it in the form of a unified judgment as the process of producing truth. The fundamental problem of the play is how far empirical evidence can be a satisfactory basis of our society’s system of truth, especially as an electric chair buzzes in the background. This is our method – intrinsically linked to social institutions, none more so than universities, of course – for understanding the enigmatic world sprawling uncertainly before us.

Whilst Rose’s script contains the play’s essential ideas, acting and production are vital to provoking personal reflection, through transforming linguistic profundity into dramatic tension. The arguments must be sincere and fearsome. Indeed, they are.

Matthew Banks does an excellent job as (arguably) the angriest man around the table. Visibly wrapped up in personal turmoil regarding his son’s violent tendencies, his judgment is emotionally marred. We can see this anguish in his disturbingly contorted face and stubborn, yet ultimately vulnerable, swagger. The persuasiveness of the protagonist is vital, of course, in attempting to convince his eleven fellow jurors. Played subtly by Rowan Spencer, he slowly works his way around the table, using eloquence, not arrogance, to articulate the logic of “considerable doubt”, constantly suggesting the significance of his perspective beyond the confines of this room, this case, this play. The old man, the first to be persuaded of potential innocence, is stunningly played by Gerard Westland. Complimented by effective make-up, he is transformed into the guise of a bodily weak, but intellectually precise, citizen, whose soft-spoken voice goes from being shouted down by the “loud-mouths” to becoming a beacon of liberty and much-needed rationale.

Music, lighting, and costuming are wisely kept minimal, so as to not distract from the intense drama. Everything looks authentic, especially the slick 50s haircuts which wonderfully emblematize respective characters. Anger equals wild bushy facial hair, just as smooth and neat cuts accompany the logicians on other side of the debate.

Not trying to emulate the film’s portrayal, but working directly from the script, Natalie Gershtein has done a good job of revitalizing this important drama. Unfortunately, one can never escape the limitations of a thoroughly unambiguous, moralistic play. There is a clear didactic message and no question as to where the play positions the audience; we are led to vote not guilty. Whilst this restricts the play from what may be deemed “high art,” drama of this kind is still much needed (and appreciated). From McGill’s lower field, to London’s Conservative Party headquarters, to the streets of Greece, in this so-called age of austerity social justice debates and protests are in constant circulation. This type of drama effectively contributes to an understanding of the wider (and perennial) significance of challenging power and seeking truth.

Twelve Angry Men is playing November 17 to 20, 8 p.m., on the third floor of Shatner, in Players’ Theatre. Tickets are $6 for students.

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