Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
William Whelton for Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
The Exonerated, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is verbatim theatre: based upon interviews with people who had their convictions for murder overturned after they had spent time on death row. Verbatim theatre places emphasis upon authenticity; the plays are often staged simply with the cast addressing the audience direct as if producers are concerned any deviation from a sombre tone could be interpreted as disrespectful.
If nothing else, Hope Mill’s production reflects the determination of director Joseph Houston to avoid pigeonholing. Proof, Houston’s directorial debut at Hope Mill, had a gentle, reflective tone. The Exonerated is a full-on multimedia experience. Houston tips his hand with the poster, which refers to the show as ‘Season One’ and uses a typeface reminiscent of a certain television streaming service. The director wants the audience to treat The Exonerated as a true-crime TV box set, which can be binge-watched in one sitting.
The staging of The Exonerated follows the format of television documentaries; talking head interviews alternate with dramatic reconstructions of key events. However, a surprising development at Hope Mill is the use of filmed inserts broadcast onto a television screen over the stage. Traditionally, such inserts allow the simulation of exotic locations or spectacular effects that are hard to create in live theatre. Based on this approach, one might expect the play to feature monologues live on stage supplemented by filmed dramatisations.
However, The Exonerated defies expectations. Seven actors on film perform all of the interviews while five other actors enact, live on stage, courtroom arguments, interrogations and other events referenced in the speeches. The sole exception is Charles Angiama who performs his monologue live using a poetic turn of phrase that makes the character a narrative link between the stories.
The stories are deeply harrowing, describing a judicial system that seems almost vindictive. Tales of the legal authorities withholding crucial evidence or taking a prejudicial attitude are commonplace. One character undergoes interrogation that amounts to brainwashing while someone who is essentially a kidnap victim somehow ends up on death row. In an unspeakably cruel touch, the execution chamber in the gaols is visible from the recreation yard or from where prisoners use the telephone. It is an exceptionally bleak play with the characters continuing to suffer the effects of their unjust incarceration even after achieving freedom. The only glimmer of hope is the remarkable attitude they display with one refusing to favour the death penalty for the men proven to have committed the crime for which he was wrongfully condemned.
Grant Archer’s filmography reflects the care taken with the production. The interviews, filmed from a variety of angles, add to the authenticity of the TV documentary concept. Jessica Station’s claustrophobic set divides the theatre into two halves with the audience seated either side of a prison yard surrounded by a mesh fence topped with barbed wire. There is interaction between the different media—as a filmed interview lists the number of prisoners executed, the actors on stage are plunged into darkness to an electronic blast of white noise.
The staging of The Exonerated is highly imaginative but not completely successful. Verbatim theatre tells the story via dialogue rather than action. Inevitably, therefore, the balance between the filmed interviews and the live scenes on stage favours the former. The filmed interviews are longer than the live action scenes and the absence of props and costumes makes the latter seem less authentic. The audience is, therefore, in the unusual position of attending a live theatre event and watching much of the play on television.
Although Hope Mill’s production of The Exonerated does not entirely overcome the limitations of the verbatim theatre format, it is an imaginative and harrowing depiction of a damaged judicial system.