Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Slapstick School of Criticism

Well, that's another classic Vile blunder. Entering Jury Play at the Traverse, I put myself into the lottery to become a member of the jury. I was selected, took my place on the stage and, as the cast took us backstage to explain our role, I realised that there was no no way but I would be able to write the fair and impartial critique that I could sell to The List. There goes my day's wages, I thought, as I mimed the action of rubbing my mind clean with a pretend pencil eraser.

On the other hand, being part of the cast is an experience that gave me some insight into the process of performance, the emotions of being an actor, and a sympathy for the production that challenges my usual attitude of the vicious spectator that hopes only for theatre's failure. Mostly, however, I felt like a puppet. 

Jury Play evokes the worn-out trope of the script that, not trusting in the dramatic potential of a plot, sets the action in a court and uses the furniture of the law to suggest an exciting battle between guilt and innocence. There are valuable court-room scripts - Twelve Angry Men is probably still touring - but it's usually a pretty pedestrian genre.  Apparently Ayn Rand wrote one and I associate her with a lumbering, polemical literature than has less interest in aesthetics than pounding home some dogmatic point about free will, or capitalism, or something.

the cast

Luckily, Jury Play isn't a courtroom drama: it's a presentation of Dr Jenny Scott's academic research into the legal system. Even from the stage, I can guess that she is critical of the formality of the trial, and advocates a more down-to-earth and inclusive environment. My line - I did get to speak - was to do with allowing the jury to arrange their seating in a more informal manner. 

In fact, I was the catalyst for the entire second act, which breaks up the jury box into a nice hippy circle, from which the jury can have a nice chat with the witnesses and the accused. And while the two professional actors on the jury led the discussion, my character - known only as Juror 13 - was the real antagonist.
Juror 13

But I was still a puppet: a puppet of a script, and that fascinated me. During the first act, which represented a typical trial, 

I had to pretend to be asleep, cover myself in a big cobweb and - well, I just sat there, wondering what was going on. I didn't notice that one actor was playing multiple roles (even though he had a very distinctive shaved head), and I didn't pay much attention to John Bett, who was the Judge. 

Bett did come across as an avuncular old geezer: he had a few chats with the audience/jurors - when the script allowed it - and he was very good at making me feel comfortable. 

From what I can make of Dr Scott's intentions, the sensation of being a puppet was the point. I was disempowered, a bit bored. Now, if I had been in the audience, doing my reviewing, this would be a bad thing. Happily, I was having an immersive experience, so I was getting the message. Luckily, I got to bowl about the place a bit more in Act Two - that's when I had my monologue - when Scott and director/co-writer Ben Harrison presented the alternative hippy court. 

It's no surprise that the audience reckoned the accused was innocent though. He was getting treated like our old mate by the time we were questioning him directly.

Jury Play, ironically, is no less polemical than one of Rand's novels: Dr Scott clearly has a problem with the way that the legal system manages to mystify its own processes through the use of fancy language, and alienate the jury through the stifling procedures. At times it gets a bit blunt - when one of the jurors has a copy of Class War, Bett's judge gets to boast of his own open-mindedness, even though he reads The Telegraph - and there's two layers of audience experience: one for the selected jury, and another for the poor suckers in the auditorium. 

Apart from the loss of my wages for the review - perhaps The Traverse could bung me a tenner for writing this - I had a good night out. I'm slightly annoyed that they took the notes I made in the first act (they gave me a pad of paper and I wrote loads of cool observations in it, which I intended to scan and use as a review, only I left it on my seat during the interval and when I came back, they'd disappeared it, along with the charge sheet and that pretend eraser, then they moved the seats around the stage, or rather we did, so I suppose that I was a stage-hand as well as an actor, I wonder what the Equity rate would be for that work?) because that was a rare occasion during which I took notes during a performance (a habit that I disdain in other critics and reviewers). 

Sorry - for a minute there, I lost myself. There's some point I wanted to make: oh yeah. Polemical theatre, entertainment, academic research,right. 

The immersive experience did get across the academic research: this is an example of theatre that has something to say and uses the format of a play to express an idea, rather than just banging on about it, a cup of tea would have been nice in the interval. 

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