Review: The Enchanted at The Bunker

If you had to think of a word to describe death row, what would it be? Dark, perhaps. Hopeless. Desperate. Whatever word first comes to mind, probably one of the last would be enchanted. Yet this is how Pharmacy Theatre’s haunting play begins, as a death row inmate describes his surroundings in language so poetic and beautiful it seems impossible he could be talking about a prison where men and women who are despised and forgotten by society go to die.

Photo credit: Dina T

This is just one example from the play of how hope and redemption can be found in even the darkest of places… or people. The Enchanted – both the play and Rene Denfeld’s novel on which it’s based – tackles head on the assumptions we in the free world make daily about death row: everyone there is evil; they feel no love or remorse; they deserve to be where they are, and can have nothing to offer the world but more pain. It does this without making excuses or painting an unrealistically rosy picture: the two prisoners in the play are guilty men who’ve done terrible things, the full details of which – thankfully – we never learn. What’s more important is not what they’ve done, but why; at the play’s heart is a desperate need to understand, and as the actors scrawl words and images on the walls and floor in chalk, the set begins to resemble a big mind map trying to make sense of a huge and complex problem.

Condensing the multiple complex strands of the novel into 90 minutes, Joanna and Connie Treves’ skilful adaptation is narrated by Arden, a prisoner whose crimes are so terrible that nobody – not even other killers – ever speaks of them. In a spellbinding performance, Corey Montague-Sholay plays this character with an intense vulnerability that’s at odds with his role as murderer; every movement, gesture and facial expression, his childlike love of books and his poetic use of language to escape the confines of his world cry out to us that this is not an evil man, but rather one who’s been broken by life.

Perhaps more in keeping with our imagined idea of a death row inmate is York (Hunter Bishop), the man in the cell next door. Unpredictable, unstable and unkempt, all restless energy and crazy eyes, he’s done the unthinkable: given up on his appeals and decided he wants to die. The only person now standing between him and execution is The Lady (Jade Ogugua), an investigator who’s become a symbol of hope for everyone on the row. As she delves into York’s past, she uncovers a horrific tale of abuse and neglect – hauntingly portrayed by puppets, as if in a therapist’s office – that explains how he ended up a killer. But can she convince him to live – and is that even her ultimate goal, or does she have some other motivation for her tireless efforts to get inside the mind of a murderer?

Photo credit: Dina T

What comes across so well in the performance, movement (directed by Emily Orme) and language of all the actors is a deep sadness and sense of collective responsibility – not just from those who’ve committed crimes, but also from those around them, who failed to hear or react to their cries for help as they set off down the dark path that ends on death row. While in no way diminishing the responsibility of the individual for their own actions, the play makes it clear that society must take some of the blame; otherwise how can we ever hope to stop such crimes from happening?

Just as in life, there are no easy answers or neat endings in this dark and gripping tale – to suggest there are would be overly simplistic. The Enchanted isn’t a political drama but an urgent human one, shining a light on a world most of us can’t even imagine, and forcing us to confront and accept the flawed and forgotten humanity of those within it, before they run out of time.

The Enchanted is at The Bunker until 17th June.

Interview: Connie Treves, The Enchanted

Joanna and Connie Treves discovered Rene Denfeld’s award-winning novel The Enchanted in 2014, after hearing the author – a death penalty investigator – speak on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. Exploring the complexities of the U.S. justice system and the treatment of prisoners on death row through performance, puppetry, choreography and sound, Pharmacy Theatre’s adaptation of The Enchanted opens at London’s Bunker Theatre this week following a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

The Enchanted is a story about death row in America, but it’s also a story about how we find hope in the most terrible circumstances,” explains Connie, who in addition to co-adapting also directs the play. “It seeks to uncover the reasons why people end up committing horrific crimes, and affirms that even men who have been locked up by society for what they have done are able to reach for beauty and truth.”

Rene Denfeld’s first novel is set in a maximum security prison in Oregon, and invites us to consider how its characters have found themselves caught up in the never-ending cycle of violence that is the death penalty. “Denfeld’s novel is such a holistic portrayal of those who work in and around death row,” says Connie. “The novel is not judgmental and Denfeld has spoken widely about how she did not want the novel to be overtly political. For me, it is so political though in its honesty. It addresses the complexity of the penal system and how we must view it within the wider structures of our society – we must always try to understand.”

Not surprisingly, adapting Denfeld’s 300-page novel has been a long and complex project. “For me, the novel is also very theatrical,” says Connie. “At the heart of the story lies the universal human need to be witnessed – to be seen – which is very interesting onstage. The whole theatrical experience suddenly becomes even more charged. Firstly, we had to create a loose script which could be worked on for the stage. The novel consists of many different overlapping stories and it was clear from the off we would not be able to keep all of the different plot lines. There was then a long process of narrowing the content and experimenting with the actors on what translated on stage. At the heart of our work was trying to keep the same ethos of the novel. That was the hardest part.”

As director, Connie has nothing but praise for her creative team, which includes movement director Emily Orme, composer David McFarlane and a cast of six actors: Corey Montague-Sholay, Jade Ogugua, Hunter Bishop, Georgina Morton, Liam Harkins and Jack Staddon. “They’re all wonderful! The process of devising is always demanding and especially working on a piece about death row. Everyone has also fully thrown themselves into the research – every day I come into rehearsal and someone is talking about a new documentary they have seen or article they’ve read!”

Although the UK no longer uses capital punishment, Connie believes the play is still essential viewing for British audiences: “We may not have the death penalty, but the UK justice system has many of the same failings as that of the USA. Both systems need to be seen as part of a whole system of social care, and it’s so important to see the correlations between failures in other parts of the social care system and an increase in crime.”

Photo credit: Jesse Jeune

The play was made with the support of the novel’s author Rene Denfeld and Professor of Child Development Elsbeth Webb. In addition, Pharmacy Theatre also enjoy the backing of prominent human rights lawyer and founder of the charity Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith. “Clive’s just fantastic,” says Connie. “He is such a brilliant man who does such hard and important work. To have his support and be able to learn from his experience has helped us all so much. We are very lucky.”

The Enchanted goes beyond simply portraying the realities of death row, and Connie hopes it will make audiences think about much deeper questions. “I hope they’ll take away that it’s so important in so many different areas of life to strive to understand why things are happening,” she explains. “By looking back to the root of a problem we are able to uncover a huge amount of hope – if there is a cause there is also the possibility to intervene in these cycles of pain. Above this though, The Enchanted is about a shared humanity. If audiences are able to come away from the production thinking about what are the things which make us human then I’ll feel we have done justice to the book!”

Book now for The Enchanted at The Bunker until 17th June.

Review: Amicus presents The Exonerated at Middle Temple Hall

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated tells the stories of five men and one woman who were sentenced to death in the USA for crimes they didn’t commit, and spent years living with the threat of execution before their innocence was finally proven. It’s a powerful piece of writing in any circumstances – but never more so than when one of those people is played by herself.

Copyright: Matt Cetti-Roberts/Frontline Pictures

In this special one-off play reading of The Exonerated presented by death row legal charity Amicus, an impressive cast – including two actors from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and two respected British barristers – was led by the incredible Sunny Jacobs. Sunny spent 17 years on death row, saw her children grow up without their parents, and lost her husband Jesse Tafero to the electric chair, before the real murderer confessed and she was (eventually) released. And yet despite all this, she radiates an astonishing positivity and a refusal to be beaten by what she went through – that, she says, is her revenge. Sunny was joined on stage by Peter Pringle, himself an exoneree who spent 15 years on death row in Ireland. The two met through their work to support exonerees, and married in 2011; both are now patrons of Amicus and make a truly inspiring couple.

Sunny’s “status” naturally made her the guest of honour for the event, which was held in the beautiful and historic Middle Temple Hall – but even so it was touching to see the respect and care shown to her by every member of the illustrious cast. It was clear throughout the evening that the actors were just as affected as the audience by the stories they were telling, and emotions ran high both during the performance and the Q&A that followed, in which several members of the cast spoke eloquently and passionately about issues surrounding the death penalty debate.

Copyright: Matt Cetti-Roberts/Frontline Pictures

Blank and Jensen’s script is powered by an incredulous anger that cases like these can really have happened. Kerry Max Cook (Jamie Parker) was convicted on the basis of one old fingerprint, and was subjected to horrific sexual violence while in prison. Gary Gauger (Peter Pringle) was interrogated for 12 hours straight about the murder of his parents, and eventually had his words twisted by the police into a false confession. Delbert Tibbs (Chris Jarman) and Robert Hayes (Tunde Okewale MBE) were guilty of nothing more than being black. David Keaton (Leslie Thomas QC) was a frightened teenager, who confessed under duress to a crime he knew nothing about. And finally Sunny, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Between them, these six cases reveal a spectrum of the countless flaws in the U.S. justice system, and the terrifying reality of how easily just about anyone can be falsely accused and convicted. In addition, it explores life after death row, and the harsh truth that being released from prison is far from the end of the story.

Above all, the play – staged simply by directors Peter and Ellen Gould – helped to demonstrate why the work Amicus does is so crucial. The charity, which was founded 25 years ago in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, trains and sends British legal interns to support defence attorneys fighting death penalty cases in the USA, and has been instrumental in countless important victories. Without them, who knows how many more innocent lives would have been lost.

To find out more about the work of Amicus and future events, visit amicus-alj.org.

Interview: Margot Ravenscroft, The Exonerated

The U.S. death penalty is a huge and controversial topic, with strong opinions on both sides. But whatever you believe, there’s one anti-death penalty argument that’s hard to dispute: what if the state executes someone who turns out to be innocent?

That, as it turns out, is not as unlikely as we might hope; in the USA today, for every nine executed, one is proven innocent. Amicus, a small charity that helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the USA, hopes to raise awareness of this appalling statistic, and their own vital work to help those affected, in a special one-off production of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated on May 16th at Middle Temple Hall.

The Exonerated is an amazingly powerful play that tells the story of six real-life cases of innocent people who were sentenced to death and subsequently exonerated,” explains Margot Ravenscroft, director of Amicus. “It’s not only their story but the story of many others still on death row, and the people in their lives. Told using extracts from actual court records and their own words, it’s beautifully woven together by the writers to leave the audience with a sense of the injustices and emotional anguish suffered by these people.”

The play debuted off-Broadway in 2002, and was later adapted into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover. For Margot and the team at Amicus, it’s become a very personal project: “I was incredibly moved the first time I saw this play, it’s a script that stays with you for life. And now, years on having personally met and worked closely with some of the people whose story this play tells, it is a real privilege to be able to produce it to benefit Amicus, in assisting people who still today face the death penalty without a fair trial process. To produce this play is something I have had in my mind for years; the impact of theatre and particularly this play on everyone who sees it live should not be underestimated.

“It’s the personal stories that touch us – the thought that but for the hand of fate it could be us, our daughter, our son. We are forced to be in their personal thoughts, drawn in by knowing the words are actually their words – not fiction but fantastical fact. The writers’ skill in bringing together these stories to a dramatic effect mean that you are left not only moved but emotionally wiser.”

The production brings together a stellar cast, including Jamie Parker, currently playing Harry Potter in the West End, barristers Leslie Thomas QC and Tunde Okewale MBE, and death row exoneree Sunny Jacobs, who plays herself. “I really wanted to have a cast with a mixture of professional actors and a few high profile legal personalities – barristers are perhaps all frustrated actors, after all,” says Margot. “Everyone who read the script was convinced. I gave Jamie Parker the script to read, knowing what a passion for justice he had. He agreed immediately, which was wonderfully touching. All of the actors have a real interest in the injustices of the world and an empathy to some of these powerful characters. Leslie and Tunde as civil rights barristers have a natural empathy with the issues of this play and understood its importance.

This production is particularly poignant too, as Sunny Jacobs will be playing herself. If you’ve ever heard Sunny speak generally, she speaks from the heart and it’s an incredible experience to have her in this production; you almost hold your breath so as not to interrupt her. Peter Pringle, another exoneree, will be playing the part of Gary – again, this really does bring the emotion of the play to the surface. Peter and Sunny are actually also husband and wife, after finding love and a rare level of understanding not only in their shared experiences of being wrongly convicted, but also in their strength of forgiveness and positive energy that’s palpable in the words and actions. They now use that strength to run a sanctuary for exonerated prisoners in rural Ireland called the Sunny Center.

“I know that people will come away from this performance with a greater understanding of the humanity of people facing the death penalty, and that they’ll be moved by these personal and touching stories. But I hope that they’ll also leave with an understanding of the importance of human rights, and support Amicus who are working with these stories every day; these are intensely dramatic and personal tales, but they’re the stories of many, many more people that we help every day.”

Amicus was founded in 1992 by Jane Officer, in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, who was executed in Louisiana in 1991. The two had met and become friends through LifeLines, a UK-based organisation that provides support to death row inmates through letter-writing. Despite a lack of scientific evidence linking him to the crime, Andrew was convicted of murder by an all-white jury, in a trial that took less than a day. Details of his mental illness were withheld by the prosecution, vital mitigation was not presented and he was represented by an inexperienced lawyer who had never tried a capital case. Good representation could have saved Andrew’s life, but instead his death became the inspiration for Amicus.

“Today Amicus takes on a huge scope of work, supported by dedicated staff and volunteers,” Margot explains. “We provide pro bono caseworkers based in the UK; working with over a dozen different firms and more than 200 individuals we’re able to coordinate key work remotely that makes a huge difference. We also send out 30-40 U.S. based interns a year, who work directly with capital lawyers in eighteen different offices across the breadth of death penalty states.

“Our bi-annual training attracts high profile experts in the field of capital defence, and introduces UK lawyers to the key issues faced and important training in preparing a capital case. We also work on various constitutional projects in support of fair trials in capital cases. Recent success in the Supreme Court in the Bobby Moore case demonstrates what can be achieved; many dedicated Amicus volunteers made this possible. The ruling in this case will affect a great many cases involving intellectually disabled people facing the death penalty.”

The statistics surrounding innocence on death row are undoubtedly shocking – but what can we here in the UK do to help“I think that coming to see The Exonerated would be a start!” answers Margot. “Human rights abuses internationally are everyone’s responsibility; educate yourself and find out what the issues are. Support Amicus; with more support we will do much more and help many more people. We have limited resources, and rely on donations in order to do our work.”

Tickets are on sale now for this special one-off performance of The Exonerated presented by Amicus on 16th May.

Review: The Exonerated at Questors Theatre

A few weeks ago, I heard an unforgettable talk by Anthony Ray Hinton, who has the dubious honour of being the 152nd person to be exonerated from America’s death row since 1976 (incidentally, since he was released last year the number’s increased to 156). Despite spending nearly 30 years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and never receiving any kind of apology, what struck me most about Ray was his astonishing lack of bitterness or hatred towards the people who’d put him there.

At that same conference, an announcement was made about the upcoming production at Questors Theatre of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated. First performed in 2002, the play documents the stories – in their own words – of six exonerated death row prisoners: Delbert Tibbs (Zac Sargusingh), David Keaton (Wayil Eisa), Gary Gauger (Mike Hadjipateras), Kerry Max Cook (Mark Redrup), Sunny Jacobs (Wendy Megeney) and Robert Earl Hayes (Jason Welch).

Although these stories vary in their details, there are several common themes: forced confessions; racism; unreliable witnesses; incompetent lawyers. Most of the speakers were only tangentially connected to the victim; just one was even there when the crime was committed. And yet all six found themselves facing the ultimate penalty for something they didn’t do, while a society looked on and called it justice.

Photo credit: Peter Collins
Photo credit: Peter Collins
Blank and Jensen travelled the country to collect interviews with the six exonerees, and it’s excerpts from these interviews along with court transcripts that make up the play’s script. As the spotlight falls on each of them, the five men and one woman take turns revealing their stories through a mix of monologue and dialogue, while the four actors of the male and female ensemble – who fill in all the remaining parts, including lawyers, cops, judges and spouses – silently patrol the edges of the set. This simple but highly effective touch from director Peter Gould brings home the idea that while they may now be free, the six will always, to a certain degree, be in prison.

Following in the footsteps of big Hollywood names including Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, the Questors cast prove more than equal to the challenge of bringing real people to life on stage – their goal not to imitate their subjects, but to capture the spirit that helped each of them survive an ordeal most of us can only imagine. There’s Delbert, the softly spoken poet; Sunny, whose sense of humour and creativity kept her going through the worst kind of horror; David, the confused teenager who had to fight to retain his faith in God… And despite everything, each of the actors ultimately radiates that same sense of peace and forgiveness we heard from Ray Hinton – not for the sake of those who got it wrong, but for the sanity of those who suffered the consequences.

Photo credit: Peter Collins
Photo credit: Peter Collins
Needless to say, The Exonerated is not a particularly easy show to watch. There are details that make us audibly gasp in shock, or shake our heads in disbelief that such a thing could possibly be allowed to happen once, let alone six (or 156) times. The anger so noticeably absent from the men and women on stage is not as easily subdued in their audience; whatever your opinion regarding the death penalty in principle, surely a justice system so flawed it can send innocent people to the execution chamber must be stopped.

The Exonerated is a heartfelt production of a hugely powerful piece of theatre. The writers’ goal was to reveal the human stories behind the statistics, but in doing so the play also exposes the failings of a system that it’s difficult to believe still exists in the 21st century. It shocks, educates and enrages – and I urge you to see it if you can.

The Exonerated is at Questors Theatre until 5th November.

* The conference where I heard Anthony Ray Hinton speak was organised by LifeLines, a UK-based organisation who support death row prisoners through letter writing.