As We Forgive Them
Arcola Theatre Studio 2
This 90-minute two-hander is set in a secure room in a US prison, in Matt Moran's design simply suggested by a table, a pair of plastic chairs and an easel with sheets for teaching or making a presentation placed in front of a white wall with three opaque glass panels.
Here US Congressman John Daniels has come to meet Lee Fenton, the man convicted of murdering his daughter. The date is 19th November, 2010; Barack Obama has just become president; Daniels is a newcomer to Congress. He and his wife are progressive enough to be against capital punishment and Fenton has avoided the death penalty on their plea, conditional on Daniels becoming responsible for the education of his daughter's killer.
As illiterate Southern white trash Fenton, Joe Sims sprawls awkwardly in his orange prison overalls, giggling, head shaved, his long chin and slack mouth against the table top, his twisted hands jabbing an 'up-you' sign to express what he cannot articulate in his often incomprehensible southern speech, his skills with pen and paper producing only ejaculating penises. Self styled 'progressive' Daniels, who has built his political reputation on certain liberal principles faces this first meeting with equal awkwardness. To hide it, Michael Anthony-Brown gives him a somewhat sanctimonious air as though addressing a public meeting but eventually bribes Fenton into co-operation with promises of fries and ice cream.
But what are both men's motives? There is more to discover here than would at first appear. Fenton does learn to read and, as his education progresses, so does Daniel's political career. The action jumps first to 2012 and then into the future of 2016 when, with an electorate wanting change, Obama, despite retaining the support of 70% of the population, is replaced as President by Sarah Palin. The twists of the plot make a similar dramatic shift with surprises for both politician and convict.
As We Forgive Them is a play that raises a whole lot of issues including political ambition, behaviour for publicity rather than humanitarian reasons, policies that support work with prisoners rather than tackle the issues that lead to criminal behaviour, and the effects both of tragedy and of political life on families. It gives an audience plenty to think about but it is the opportunities offered to the actors and the way these players seize them that makes this a gripping piece of theatre.
Andrew Pearson paces his production beautifully with neat little touches, like tidy-minded Daniels picking up a crumpled chocolate bar wrapper and flakes of chocolate as he packs his case at the end of a scene, but at times it does not fit this wide playing space as well as it might. While there may be gains in moving one character into ultra close proximity to the audience, those on the other side of the space seem to have become momentarily detached from the play. However, it certainly emphasises the gap between Congressman and murderer and makes the audience question how they would deal with a confrontation with Fenton.
A word of warning about the Arcola's new venue: pursuing the eco-friendly policies adopted in the earlier theatre they have not yet solved the problem of keeping patrons warm. If going there during the current cold spell, dig out the thermal underwear. If you are not particularly tall then try to grab a front row seat as the rostrum risers in Studio 2 are far too low if there is someone even of moderate height in front of you - this needs amending.
Runs at the Arcola until 19th February 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton