Review: Devil With The Blue Dress at The Bunker Theatre

In Kevin Armento’s Devil With The Blue Dress, Hillary Clinton refers to her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky as the second worst thing ever to happen to her. It’s a great line, which unsurprisingly earns a big laugh, but it’s also a very telling comment. Hillary Rodham Clinton – lawyer, author, politician, mother, grandmother, the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party in U.S. history – is still known above all by people across the world, and within her own nation, for two main events: that time her husband cheated on her with a 22-year-old intern, and that time she was beaten in the presidential election by a man with zero political experience, qualifications or intelligence.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Devil With The Blue Dress examines the circumstances of the former, while reflecting on the impact it may or may not have had on the latter. Most of us above a certain age will remember, however vaguely, what’s become known as “the Monica Lewinsky scandal”; Armento’s script fills in the political and personal details, from the perspective of both Hillary (Flora Montgomery) and Monica (Daniella Isaacs), as well as the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea (Kristy Philipps), Bill’s devoted secretary Betty (Dawn Hope) and Monica’s friend and confidante, Linda (Emma Handy).

Joshua McTaggart’s production begins in an orderly fashion, with Flora Montgomery’s meticulously controlled Hillary presenting each of the characters in “her play” as they emerge from behind a curtain at the back of the stage. Then Monica, played by Daniella Isaacs, crashes the party, at which point the narrative takes a very different direction. She wants to tell her side of the story, and does so with colour and emotion; in fact she’s the total opposite of Hillary, and if we met her out of context, we’d probably quite like her. It’s a sympathetic view of a woman who’s rarely seen in such a positive light: young and in love, she’s manipulated by those around her and pays for it by becoming the face and name of a global scandal.

By Act 2, the curtain’s down, the truth is out and the gloves – or rather heels – are well and truly off, as little by little the five women turn on each other. And if there’s one key player noticeably missing from the all-female line-up, Bill Clinton still makes his voice heard, both through the sterling work of saxophonist Tashomi Balfour and through the women themselves, with the “supporting cast” of Chelsea, Linda and Betty each taking turns to speak his words. Meanwhile Hillary and Monica face off in a battle over who’s been most wronged by the other, neither apparently giving a moment’s thought to the idea that the President might bear some responsibility for their misery. And it’s that very point that makes this play about a 20-year-old scandal so relevant right now in 2018, with the #metoo movement continuing to gain momentum, even as Donald Trump – a man who literally believes he can do anything he wants to women because he’s famous – sits smugly in the White House.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Though a little knowledge of U.S. political history might help, particularly at the start of the play, Armento’s writing is clear enough that anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of what happened in 1998 – and 2016 – can easily keep up with the chain of events. The conflict between the women makes for compelling viewing, but what really sets the stage for an interesting debate is the underlying question of why that conflict is even happening, and what damage it’s inflicting on both the individuals involved and the perceptions of those watching. I’ve never questioned why it’s known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal and not the Bill Clinton scandal – but I am now, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

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Review: It Is So Ordered at the Pleasance

We usually only get to hear about miscarriages of justice once they’re over – and when that happens there’s an expectation that we should be celebrating. Of course it’s good news when an innocent man or woman is released from a sentence they never should have received – but shouldn’t we also feel some anger, and a desire to change the system that imposed the sentence in the first place, stealing years or even decades from someone’s life? Why congratulate the people who got it wrong when we should be making sure they can’t ever do it again?

Photo credit: Tim Hall

It was this anger that prompted Conor Carroll to begin writing It Is So Ordered, after hearing the true story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man who spent 39 years in prison in the USA for a crime he didn’t commit. Jackson’s conviction was based on the coerced testimony of a young boy, and his release only secured when the same witness finally felt able to reveal the truth four decades later.

Opening during the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, the play begins with the fatal shooting of a shop owner and the arrest of teenage brothers Johnny and Craig. A younger boy, Bobby (Faaiz Mbelizi), is interrogated by the police and forced into giving evidence at the brothers’ trial. While Craig accepts a deal and is later released on parole, Johnny (Simon Mokhele) continues to protest his innocence and ends up with a life sentence. But he’s not the only one – Bobby must live every day with the knowledge of what he’s done, unable to retract his story for fear of repercussions for himself and his family.

Carroll’s passion for his subject is clear in every moment of this intense, urgent play, and in the heartfelt, utterly convincing performances of Faaiz Mbelizi and Simon Mokhele. As Johnny’s imprisonment stops being something that happened years ago and stretches into our own lifetimes – a reference to 9/11 revealing just how long it’s been – we’re forced to consider whether things have really changed all that much, even now, in terms of the U.S. justice system and the mistreatment by police of African Americans, which continues to make headlines today.

The play’s message is one that needs to be heard, and director Lucy Curtis opts for a stripped-back production that allows us to focus without any distractions. Carroll’s words fly thick and fast as the actors pace the floor, unafraid to make direct, confrontational eye contact with the audience. While on paper their lives may seem like opposites, in reality neither man is truly free, and their lines fit together seamlessly to form a single narrative of horrifying injustice. The stage becomes an evidence room of sorts as key details – dates, names, the outline of the murder victim and of the interrogation room – are scribbled in chalk on the floor and walls so that our eyes are constantly drawn back to them. There’s certainly a case to be answered… but it’s not Johnny or Bobby who should be on trial here.

Photo credit: Tim Hall

And yet. Despite all this, there’s a note of resilience and hope for a better future, even in the darkest moments. When the two men lift their voices and sing together of their determination to one day be free, we feel that perhaps all isn’t yet completely lost. And when Johnny begs Bobby to stand up and be heard, we know full well he’s not only addressing the other man, but the whole room – and beyond.

We never get to witness the celebratory moment of Johnny’s long-awaited release from prison, though it’s fair to assume this is imminent as the stage goes dark. Consequently, we leave the theatre feeling not relaxed and reassured by the story’s happy ending, but filled with a lingering fury at everything that’s gone before it. It Is So Ordered is a gripping and powerful hour of theatre that deserves to be seen – and acted upon.


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


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