PLAYWRIGHT Reginald Rose drew the inspiration for his famous film-script from his own experience as a juror in a manslaughter case in Manhattan. “We got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room,” he recalled many years later.
At the time he was a script-writer on a television drama series and he realised the theatrical potential of the jury-room for a tense exploration of the behaviour of a group of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds. The result of the deliberations of 12 men, with nothing in common except being called to sit on a jury together, would depend on a completely unpredictable series of interactions, reactions, personal histories and individual prejudices.
And so Twelve Angry Men was born, initially as a television play and three years later as an Oscar-nominated film by debut director Sidney Lumet with a powerful performance by Henry Fonda as Juror 8. The first stage adaptation was in London in 1964 and the present production is on tour and at Bath Theatre Royal until Saturday 4th April, after a highly praised and successful West End run.
As the play opens, the judge is concluding his comments and the jury is sent out. The entire action of the play passes in the jury-room with no air-conditioning and a ceiling fan that doesn’t work. The 12 men – only known by their jury numbers – take their seats. Their deliberations begin with a vote – who thinks the young man (he is only 16, we learn) is guilty of murder? It is very clear – 11 votes to one.
A quiet but determined man, Juror 8 (Tom Conti) believes that a young man stands to lose his life in the electric chair and that they, the jurors, have a duty to consider the facts of the case before they rush to judgement. He deserves more than five minutes and an instant vote. And so it begins …
It is rapidly clear that Juror 3 (Andrew Lancel) and Juror 10 (Dennis Lill) have an almost visceral certainty that the young man deserves to die. Their behaviour is explosive, their tempers barely controlled from the outset.
Juror 4 (Robert Duncan) is an intelligent man in a smart suit. Juror 9 (Paul Beech) is the oldest but not the most rigid in his opinions. Juror 11 (Edward Halsted) knows what horrors can come from racial and ethnic prejudice. Juror 5 (Alexander Forsyth) knows something about the brutal background in which the young accused grew up and still lives.
Over an increasingly tense two hours these men and the other jurors bring their own experiences, their own prejudices and fears to the arguments. The ad-man, Juror 12 (Gareth David-Lloyd) is nothing like as smart as his sharp suit and is out of his intellectual depth. The working man, Juror 6 (Mark Carter) brings his practical common sense to his deliberations.
You may think you know the outcome, but (unless you have seen the film very recently) you won’t know how they get there. And it is in the deliberations, the explosions, the anguish and the anger, that you see the best and worst of man. (And yes, this is an all-male, all-white cast – as most juries were at that time, in the USA.) But don’t imagine for a moment, that a 21st century jury, no matter what its gender or racial balance, would include fewer divergent opinions. How we interpret facts is based on so many unpredictable factors.
It may take just one quiet man to shake certainties, or one very angry man to force his views on others.
This is an excellent, compelling production of a play that still draws the audience in and makes them look at their own reactions and prejudices. Tom Conti gives one of those performances which seem so understated you barely see its power – it is only at the single moment when he becomes angry, that you realise just how powerful a voice of quiet reason can be.
Is the young man’s guilt proven “beyond reasonable doubt”? It is up to the jury to decide. Rivetting theatre. FC