Christopher Haydon is running late (understandably), pressed for time and yet perfectly articulate. As he talks about Twelve Angry Men, which is about to open in the West End, there is a surety in his answers. But there’s also a desire to look beyond what he knows into something that could be bigger and darker than you might think, when it comes to this ’50s courtroom drama.
The artistic director of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, it was Chris who directed Lucy Ellinson in the gut-wrenching one woman show, Grounded, for which she is long-listed in the Best Actress category at the Evening Standard Awards 2013. In stark contrast to Grounded, which saw Lucy take on the story of a drone operator working alone in the Nevada dessert,Twelve Angry Men shows us humans operating as a group, in this case jurors deciding on the verdict of a murder trial.
First broadcast as a television drama in 1954, the play by Reginald Rose charts the deliberation of a jury who at first seem like they’ll unanimously agree a guilty verdict until a dissenter arises from their ranks. Chris talks about Twelve Angry Men almost as a period drama, a snapshot of America as it teeters out of its post-war heroism, preparing its way into Vietnam and the sexual revolution of the ’60s. He suggests we could regard Rose’s writing as a precursor to the quick repartee of The West Wing or Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, looking at the ways we move forward en masse and what happens to individual introspection as we do. But first we tackle the genre of the courtroom drama.
“If drama is ultimately about conflict,” he begins, “the courtroom drama boils that down to its essence. It isn’t just about the case or the theatricality of the court system, it’s about human behaviour. What Reginald Rose has written is a portrait of collective behaviour, of the human being as a pack animal rather than an individual.”
The play isn’t set literally in a courtroom, it begins after the prosecution and defence have given their closing statements. But with all the deliberation and the burden of proof, it fits neatly into the genre. It also challenges the default of contemporary drama as Chris points out when he says: “Drama in late Western, capitalist society tends to see things from the perspective of the individual and individual psychology.” Twelve Angry Men on the other hand, creates a scenario where we’re almost forced to question how we make decisions as a society either by executing a verdict or standing implicitly by. For me, it also casts doubt over our jury system but Chris, who hasn’t done jury service yet, steers neatly away from my question about systems of justice, “I don’t know enough about our jury system to really talk about its flaws.” Fair enough.
What he does know about, as we saw with Grounded, is the way we make adjustments to our behaviour and the variables that can come into play. “I’m interested in the way our behaviour changes,when we’re in the minority and in the majority and how that affects us. You see these characters running smack into their own prejudices and having to challenge that. Each juror changes his vote for different reasons. They talk about things not feeling right, and not being sure. Rose instinctively understands the nexus that exists between the head and the heart, how we think about things and how we feel about them.”
You could add another dimension: what we think, what we feel and what we actually choose to say out loud in front of others. This, I think, is where we can bring in gender to an already loaded drama. In particular, a drama that is often assumed to be about race (“Nothing in the script ever says anything about what the race of the defendant is so that’s interesting in terms of our assumptions as an audience”) and one that has been adapted a few times with productions such as Twelve Angry Women and Twelve Angry Jurors.
What men say among a group of men is different to what they might say when there are people of other genders around. “I think there’s a period thing to consider,” says Chris when I put this to him, “the ’50s is different from now. It is about pride, about being unwilling or unable to back down, then exploring what it means when you do do that. When some jurors change their mind, it feels like a real act of courage when other do it, it feels like a real act of confusion or cowardice. It’s the skill in the writing. Rose doesn’t let his characters off the hook even if they do the right thing.” But I still wonder if someone were to ask Rose (who died aged 81 in 2002) about how gendered his drama is, would he consider it a ’50s thing?
Twelve Angry Men runs at Garrick Theatre from 6th November until 1st March 2014.
Last two images by Robert Day.