No rushing to judgement

tom conti

Tom Conti as the dissenting Juror 8

Twelve Angry Men

Coventry Belgrade

*****

TO perform Reginald Rose’s true-to-life play Twelve Angry Men onstage requires a steely nerve. Inevitably it invites comparisons with the characters of Sydney Lumet’s legendary 1957 U. S. movie headed by Henry Fonda, where the bonus of cinematic close-up, meticulous lighting, ice-clear camera work and monochrome shooting only heightens the tension.  

There is added obliqueness from the roles themselves. Twelve white males. No surnames, let alone Christian names – each is known as Juror 1, Juror 2, etc. The chances for the supposed perpetrator of this murder, a battered 16 year old non-white boy from a poor background, are grim.  

That is, without the one dissenter, Juror 8. Tom Conti has taken over the role originally toured by Martin Shaw, and his dissection of the sequence of events – signally superior, it’s clear, to that by the defending lawyer - calls forth a mixture of precision, slyness, skilled forensics that Conti, in ill-fitting suit, slouching like a taller Columbo, more laid back than Fonda, less frenetic than Jack Lemmon in the often overlooked but admirable 1997 remake, captures par excellence. Repeatedly, he lays traps for each, or most, of his interlocutors. And one by one (‘It’s possible…’), he nets them. It’s a hugely attractive, beguiling, believable performance; impressively cogent too.

The hardest to trap is Juror 3 – the Lee J. Cobb role, the maverick whose mental collapse and psychological unravelling finally empower the unanimous vote at the end. Andrew Lancel, much younger than the superb Cobb, or indeed George C. Scott in the Lemmon film, grimaces, struts, shrugs, sneers, bullies, threatens, overbears; he is cocky rather than nasty; his bluster always suggests the vulnerability which gets revealed at the end.

His frequently raised voice dominates the stage, but he loses ground the more the more he deploys it. Bold, cocksure, sometimes snaky, it’s a consistently forceful performance.

Just as crucial is the ever-so-logical Juror 4. Robert Duncan makes commanding sense of the E. G. Marshall role, trapped in the end by his own logic. A smooth operator, at worst supercilious, but in fact a cool truth-seeker from the outset (he is the one lawyer on the jury), Duncan deploys a calm assurance, in fact confusing probability with fact, enabling him to hold out till the end.

The fact that it is the visual element of the evidence – what the lady sees through the moving train, and the discovery that she, like No. 4 himself, is short-sighted (hence casting doubt on the one item he insists on as clear evidence for a conviction) – makes for one of the most powerful conversions of the evening.

UNIFORM QUALITY

But this play requires a full complement of convincing performances: and those it certainly receives. There’s no need to pick out: there’s uniform quality, and often excellence. Mark Carter (Juror 6) is a case in point. He has perhaps three important interventions, transiting from initially hostile and unmoved to positively supportive. Strolling around in his yellow short sleeves, he is distinguished from the rest; the performance is a strikingly good one, not least when he shields the old man from assault by the heavies.  

Paul Beech plays the old man, disconcertingly blind-looking in the film: it is he who first changes sides, and he who consistently takes a moral stance when others step unduly out of line. The perceptive Beech (of the witness: ‘A man like this needs to be noticed’) gives as good a performance as young Alexander Forsyth. the one juror who knows exactly what it’s like to grow up in a slum (like the defendant).

Both scenes focusing on the switch-blade knife are splendidly played as a team, but it is Forsyth’s insistence on the upward stroke employed amongst violent youth which comes close to clinching the defence. Never pushing himself forward, he catches the emotive pull as forcibly and unexpectedly as the film’s wonderful Jack Klugman. To have a younger actor who could almost be the age of the supposed perpetrator was one of many good bits of casting by director Christopher Haydon and his team.

Andrew Frame proves a fine match for Balsam as the Foreman, Juror 1, one of the finely understated roles both in the film and here. Besides having a gift for making electric fans work, Frame presides over the most arresting of designer Michael Pavelka’s touches. A jury table is rather a static affair without film cameras to vary the shots. Here, the table gradually, rather subtly and disconcertingly, circles or swings throughout the action. We are thus faced with a whole series of different angles. Meanwhile Haydon is engaged in a welter of additional different blockings, which guarantee ongoing interest – perhaps never more so than in a three-way washroom banter between the three key objecters.

At times he brings a particular player to the fore – Forsyth’s Juror 5, for instance, or Denis Lill’s increasingly odious, brusque, ranting Juror 10 (the Ed Begley role: ‘Boy, o boy, there’s always one’; ‘You can talk until your tongue is on the floor’), finally worsted, after several massive outbursts, in the latter stages of the play; or Sean Power (Juror 7), who seems to be performing a constant lilt round the stage – perhaps without the specific wry ironies of Jack Warden in the film, but catching all of the childish irresponsibility.

The moment David Calvitto’s Juror 2 builds systematically to a swapped vote is effective and pleasingly convincing. Gareth David-Lloyd provides mildly entertaining, unexpected light relief, though (like Robert Webber in the film) arguably lacks a defining character. The one who stands with Beech’s No. 9 as upholding a meaningfully moral stance is Edward Halsted’s wholly convincing mid-European watchmaker, who underlines the panic that surrounds the knife and its leaving. He takes on Lill’s garrulous battler (‘What are you so polite about?’ ‘Same reason as you’re not, it’s the way I was brought up’); and comes almost to fisticuffs with the tedious No. 7. 

Only at the denouement did I feel a slight disappointment. The final standoff with Lancel’s no. 3 felt just a mite short on detail. It was as if a cut or two had been made to spruce up the action and enliven the end – as brisk as the opening was deliberately played lento. The revelation that No. 3’s real problem is a projection of his relationship with his own son is a quite brilliant, unexpected finale. At the very least, the script that is there needs to be paced down a little . . . To 14-02-15

Roderic Dunnett

09-02-15 

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