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.