Review: Gilded Butterflies at The Hope Theatre

Debates about the death penalty tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the moral rights and wrongs of taking a life for a life. Less, perhaps, is known about the dehumanising conditions in which condemned prisoners must await their fate – often for years, or even decades. Tormented Casserole’s two-hander Gilded Butterflies, devised by the company and directed by Kathryn Papworth-Smith, sets out to remedy that. Based on the true account of death row survivor Sunny Jacobs, the play paints a brutal picture of what everyday life is like in solitary confinement, and in doing so it also offers us a poignant glimpse at the lengths to which the human spirit will go to survive, even in unimaginably bleak circumstances.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

Maggie (Francesca McCrohon) is a young woman who spends her days alone in her prison cell in Florida. It’s been a year since she saw or spoke to anyone besides her guards and her lawyer, but she keeps herself upbeat by painting, writing daily letters to her husband, and dreaming of what she’ll do when her lawyer gets her out. Then one day she gets a new neighbour (Samantha Pain) – but having company may not be quite the blessing she expected, and Maggie soon finds herself forced to face up to some devastating truths about what she’s done, and where she might be headed.

Samantha Pain plays three roles: the nameless prisoner next door, Maggie’s lawyer and her sister Lauren. Each of these is not so much a character in their own right as a vehicle to shed a little new light on Maggie’s situation, and it’s Francesca McCrohon who steals the show throughout. Smiley, chatty, kind: in any other circumstances Maggie’s the kind of person you can imagine yourself getting along with. Both the script and McCrohon’s performance draw us in, and for at least the first half of the play we even find ourselves sharing a little of her bright-eyed optimism about the state of her appeals.

And then we find out what brought Maggie to death row, and the tone of the play shifts in a much darker direction. Her dreams for the future are exposed as just that – dreams – and we realise what we’re seeing is a woman desperately battling to hold on to who she is against a system that’s determined to steal every last scrap of humanity from her, before finally ending her life. The lack of human contact; the refusal to allow her the most basic of items; the fact that she’s not even allowed to attend her own court hearings to plead her case; each new detail is one more reminder of how the American justice system views prisoners as less than human, a problem to be eradicated rather than addressed in any constructive way. Maggie is not innocent of the terrible crime for which she’s been convicted, but based on what we later learn of her circumstances, she’s not wholly guilty either – a subtle difference that a black and white system like the death penalty completely fails to take into account.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

The play is simply staged; given the nature of the story, visually there’s not a lot to look at except a static set – consisting of two cells outlined on the ground, each with a metal bed and not much else – which helps to emphasise the monotony of Maggie’s daily existence. At each scene transition, white noise sound effects and abrupt lighting changes from Naomi Baldwin create an oppressive atmosphere that no amount of chatter can quite dissipate.

Gilded Butterflies is a thought-provoking and moving piece that highlights the urgent need for a change in policy and attitudes. The story may be set on death row, but the talking points it raises – specifically around mental health and the importance of rehabilitation rather than punishment – can be just as easily applied to justice systems around the world, including that of the UK. And if the play happens to also make you angry about the insanity of the death penalty – well, that’s an added bonus.

Gilded Butterflies is at The Hope Theatre until 24th November.


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Review: On Mother’s Day at the Cockpit Theatre

“I could tell you I’m a good man… but you wouldn’t believe me.” Inspired by writer Saaramaria Kuittinen’s seven-year correspondence with prisoners on death row, On Mother’s Day聽from Ekata Theatre tells a heartbreaking tale that’s all too familiar. It’s the story of a crime – a violent, horrific murder that should never have happened. But it’s also the story of the man who committed it, his shame and guilt over what he’s done, and his desperate need to cling on to who he is in a world that’s specifically designed to dehumanise him.

Ram贸n (Christian Scicluna) is a murderer – but he’s also thoughtful, creative, funny and extremely likeable.聽He doesn’t try and make excuses, nor does he ask us to condone what he’s done. Instead, he shares with us his memories, which are all that he has left of his former life, and in doing so tells us all we need to know about the path that brought him here.

Those memories are recreated not only through Ram贸n’s words but by the mesmerising movement and physicality of ensemble members Lukas Bozik and Silvia Manazzone. The violent abuse suffered by his mother at the hands of his father; the party at which he met Maria, the love of his life; the precious childhood holidays at his grandma’s in the countryside – all are brought vividly to life and allow Ram贸n to step outside the confines of his tiny cell and experience in his mind a world he no longer gets to see, hear or touch.

Although, on the surface, the story told by聽On Mother’s Day is personal, not political, it’s difficult to watch it without feeling a growing sense of anger at a system that places retribution above rehabilitation, and utterly disregards the circumstances that may have led someone to commit a terrible crime.聽Ram贸n’s has been a life of violence, but at the hands of others, not his own. The crime for which he was condemned was, he tells us, the one time in his life that he acted without thinking – and yet it’s enough, in the eyes of the law, to wipe out any good he may have done or may go on to do in the future.

The set is simple – just Ram贸n’s cell, a metal bedframe and a small box of possessions, right in the centre of the stage. Director Erika Eva makes creative use of The Cockpit’s in-the-round stage area, however, extending it to include the high walkways that overlook the stage, and where the actors pace up and down like prison guards. The show also makes particularly effective use of light, which is used both as an interrogation tool and to create the play’s striking and desperately poignant final image.

I had a personal interest in seeing this show because I also have some experience of writing to prisoners on death row, and have been struck repeatedly by the wit, wisdom, compassion and astonishing creativity of men and women who’ve been written off by society. This is exactly what On Mother’s Day captures so well. However incongruous it may seem, Ram贸n is both a murderer and a good man; he deserves to be punished for his crime, but there’s so much more to him than the single worst thing he’s ever done. Although the current run is at an end, let’s hope it isn’t the last we see of this beautiful and heartbreaking story of life on death row, which succeeds not only as a piece of theatre but also as a powerful argument against the senseless violence of the death penalty.

On Mother’s Day ran at the Cockpit Theatre from 13th to 16th August. For more details about Ekata Theatre and future productions, visit聽www.ekatatheatre.com聽or follow @EkataTheatre.

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聽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.


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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鈥檚 Women鈥檚 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聽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鈥檚 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聽the threat of execution before their innocence was finally proven. It’s a powerful piece of writing in any circumstances –聽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聽presented by death row legal charity Amicus, an impressive cast – including two actors from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child聽and two respected British barristers – was led by the incredible聽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聽– that, she says, is her revenge. Sunny was joined on stage by Peter Pringle, himself an exoneree who spent 15 years on聽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聽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聽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聽(Tunde Okewale MBE)聽were guilty of nothing more than聽being聽black. David Keaton (Leslie Thomas QC) was a frightened teenager, who confessed under duress to a crime he knew nothing about. And finally聽Sunny, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Between them, these six cases reveal a spectrum of the countless聽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聽being released from prison is far from the end of the story.

Above all, the play – staged聽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聽British legal interns聽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聽amicus-alj.org.


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