I would really like to be able to recommend The Exonerated, a new production of which has just opened at The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London. Its politics are exemplary, the stories — told in their own words — of the six Americans who spent between two and 20 years on death row for crimes they were subsequently proven not to have committed, are appropriately harrowing and uplifting. As an evening of politics, it can’t be faulted.
As an evening at the theatre, however, it has a number of problems. Chief among these is the fact that here in Britain, this is a production that will cater chiefly to the already converted. Few if any of the audience members are like to be in favour of the use of the death penalty; few will be unaware that large parts of the American legal system are corrupt, racist and utterly untrustworthy. It has little new to tell them.
Particularly egregious examples of abuses — the account of the man who has just found his parents murdered, their throats slit, being forced to look at graphic photos of their bodies, or of the obviously intellectually limited 18-year-old black man browbeaten into confessing to taking part in an armed robbery that led to the death of a policeman, on the expectation of then being allowed to go home — might produce gasps from the audience, but this is a story that anyone who reads British quality newspapers is entirely familiar with.
The actors present a script derived entirely from interviews with the victims of the US “justice” system and from legal transcripts. Supporting this format, they are apparently reading their lines, or at least flicking over the pages, an action that is both distracting and annoying. The sound effects – slamming prison doors, buzzing electric chairs – are also heavy-handed and unsubtle. If we are hearing transcripts of words, they also make little sense.
While this method of “writing” has been used to good effect in several recent productions, here it runs into a serious obstacle. The convicted innocents are — inevitably in a system that relies heavily on money to determine guilt or innocence — the very poor, the ill-educated and those of limited intelligence. They do not always make their own best advocates.
Kerry, played on the night I saw by Aidan Quinn (the cast rotates regularly), says indignantly: “I’m no different from you – I mean, I wasn’t a street thug, I wasn’t trash, I came from a good family — if it happened to me, man, it can happen to anyone.” The tone and intent is to say that he’s not “trash”, unlike the people around him – a curiously insensitive message in the circumstances.
There is an impressive lack of bitterness here – although one can’t but wonder if this was due to the selection of the “authors” of the piece, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. But there’s little real analysis of their position, and what put the convicted individuals there. Criticism of racism, hints about the poor pay for public defenders, criticism of the political pressure on police and judicial systems to get a conviction, any conviction, do come through, but there is no deeper analysis or thoughts about the underlying nature of US society that produces these effects.
In fact I only came away with one new idea, really new impression, from The Exonerated – that I could understand more clearly how George Bush came to be elected and re-elected in America. The intellectual, cultural and social poverty and inequality at the heart of the United States of America is on full display. That very limitation, that simplicity, ensures that this is not, sadly, a satisfying evening. By all means go if you want to make a political statement – go, perhaps, to the Amnesty International gala night on May 18. But don’t go with high expectations of intellectual or dramatic satisfaction.