Tensions and tempers rise in jury room drama
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Tensions and tempers rise in jury room drama

12 Angry Men. By Reginald Rose. Directed by Jarrad West. Composer: Tim Hansen. Everyman Theatre. Queanbeyan Bicentennial Hall. November 14 to 24. 6285 6290 or theq.net.au/12-angry-men/.

<i>12 Angry Men</i>: from left, Alex Hoskisson, Pat Gallagher, Glenn Brighenti, Martin Searles, Isaac Reilly, Geoffrey Borny, Rob de Fries, Colin Giles, Duncan Driver, Will Huang, Tony Turner, Cole Hilder.

12 Angry Men: from left, Alex Hoskisson, Pat Gallagher, Glenn Brighenti, Martin Searles, Isaac Reilly, Geoffrey Borny, Rob de Fries, Colin Giles, Duncan Driver, Will Huang, Tony Turner, Cole Hilder.Credit:Janelle McMenamin

The setting is a New York City courthouse in the 1950s. After being instructed by the judge in a homicide trial, 12 men enter a jury room. In a preliminary vote, 11 of the jurors vote to convict the defendant of murdering his father in cold blood, something that will send the young man to the electric chair.

But the 12th juror - identified only as Juror Number Eight - isn't so hasty. He votes not guilty, not necessarily because he believes the underprivileged young man to be innocent, but because he thinks the case, given its gravity, should be discussed, not treated as open-and-shut.

That's the set-up for Reginald Rose's play 12 Angry Men, adapted from his 1954 TV play and made into a well-regarded 1957 film.

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Jarrad West, who is directing 12 Angry Men for the company he co-founded, Everyman Theatre, says the play offers a fly-on-the-wall view of the deliberations of a jury and how individuals' backgrounds, prejudices and personalities can influence their decision-making. Apathy, racial and social bigotry, peer pressure - these are some of the motives revealed as as the action unfolds.

<i>12 Angry Men</i>: from left: Tony Turner, Alex Hoskisson, Isaac Reilly

12 Angry Men: from left: Tony Turner, Alex Hoskisson, Isaac ReillyCredit:Janelle McMenamin

Rose later wrote different versions of the play - 12 Angry Women, 12 Angry Jurors - to take changing times and a greater mix of jurors into account.

But West elected to use the original text, where "that responsibility would fall on all-white men and the defendant - we're never sure what race he is - is 'Other'.''

West is not a Men's Rights Activist but this was also in keeping with one of Everyman's stated purposes, which is to examine different types of masculinity, as previous productions such as The History Boys and The Normal Heart have.

The play will be staged in the round because "It puts everyone in the jury room ... it's definitely fly-on-the-wall."

This has necessitated a lot of work for the director, the stage manager and the cast to make sure crucial moments are visible. But West thinks the sense of being present in real time - "straight through, 90 minutes, no interval" - while the jury debates and argues will more than compensate.

West says despite its dated elements, 12 Angry Men still has plenty to say.

"More than 50 years later, a lot has not changed- people are still governed by their own prejudices, past experiences and life stories.

"The rant Number 10 goes on could be taken, literally, from one of Donald Trump's supporters."

The past few years have seen increased inflammatory rhetoric from the US president, he says, and in Australia asylum seekers on Nauru are just one of the hot topics.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," West says.

He says the cast have discussed theories about why Number Eight holds out - had he always planned to vote "Not guilty"? Could he have been bribed or coerced by the Mafia to force a hung jury? - but West believes his motivation is as it appears: not wanting to condemn someone to death without any deliberation.

The most rational opponent of Juror Number Eight (played by Isaac Reilly) is Juror Number Four (Martin Searles). Based on the evidence presented, Number Four believes the defendant is guilty.

"We've talked about him really only being concerned with the facts ... He feels other jurors are trying to argue matters based on personal feelings or impressions," Searles says.

"He's there to do the job."

Pretty much the only personal thing he discloses is he is a stockbroker - Number Eight is an architect - and initially it seems as though they represent different forces: Number Four argues the head and Number Eight from the heart.

"He's concerned with the process and does't have much of a sense of humour," Searles says of his character.

While the character is somewhat detached from the consequences of a "guilty" verdict - he's willing to let the law take it course - that's not the same as wanting an execution.

"He wants to get it right," Searles says.

He believes Number Four is "a more conservative person ... he probably votes Republican but at the same time I think he does have a social conscience.

"He does stand up for people."

And, he says Number Four is open to discussion, unlike some of the other jurors.

Searles is a solicitor and although he works in areas such as conveyancing, leasing and wills rather than criminal law, he thinks his profession does give him a relevant perspective on the play.

Part of studying law, he says, is making future lawyers assess facts and evidence as objectively as possible, and people aren't trained like that

"It's a really interesting exploration of the jury system," Searles.

He thinks 12 Angry Men both champions and criticises the jury system, revealing some of the potential problems, including the way people let outside, irrelevant factors colour their judgment.

Despite some dramatic licence,"I think this play is relevant to some juries: you probably don't always get a Juror Number Eight who wants to dig deeply."

People will come to their own conclusions as to what - if any - jury system we should have, or whether we should have trial by judge alone. 12 Angry Men provides a canvassing of some of the issues in a dramatic way.

It has been referenced, imitated or spoofed over the years in a number of TV shows including Hancock's Half Hour, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Happy Days, Monk and The Simpsons, among others - a sign of its cultural penetration.