Twelve Angry Men, Starring Tom Conti, Denis Lill…and Gareth David-Lloyd
Play Review by Tony J Fyler
In fact the first thing that any Torchwood fan has to put right out of their mind when watching the new stage production of classic jury-room drama 12 Angry Men is that Ianto not only lives, but lives to pass judgment on somebody else. For some reason, probably closely bound up in the emotional reaction of fandom to the character’s death, it feels instinctively more wrong to see Ianto actor Gareth David-Lloyd up on stage being somebody else than it does, say, to see Burn ‘Owen’ Gorman in new movies, Eve ‘Gwen’ Myles on screen trying to be funny alongside Anthony Head in You, Me and Them, or even watching John ‘Captain Jack’ Barrowman involve himself in new shenanigans in Arrow.
There’s a bizarre, unreasoning additional instinct in Torchwood fans’ brains that looks at David-Lloyd on stage and yell ‘Ianto lives!’
But let’s punch that instinct squarely in the face and let the poor boy have a career beyond Torchwood. The question is – is Twelve Angry Men in an iteration which includes David-Lloyd in the cast actually any good?
Full disclosure time: I’ve never seen either the original TV play or the much more famous movie version of Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. In fact the closest I’d ever come to this acme of jury-room drama before watching the new production was the Tony Hancock comedic version, which perversely in some of its key components, still works reasonably well as a primer of what the play is all about.
Essentially, Twelve Angry Men takes us into a jury room in 1950s
, where a group of twelve
men, all of them very noticeably white, deliberate on the fate of a young boy,
very strongly hinted, though never explicitly stated, to be non-white, who is
accused of murdering his father. The play takes its time to show us the state
of the majority of the nation at the time, through the guise of a semi-forensic
re-examination of what seems like an open and shut case. It brings to light the
importance of ‘reasonable doubt’ and it exposes some of the motives that could
very well have clouded the minds of many in the original audience as to what
‘reason’ actually was. It’s a powerful play, and by refusing for the most part
to resort to caricature even of the people it aims to show as unreasonable, it
closes the loopholes through which prejudiced views – whether they be of
non-white people, poor people, young people or just some generalised ‘Other,’
could escape its viewing unexamined. America
The fact that Twelve Angry Men is still being performed today, and that its concerns over the readiness of a privileged group to go with the easy ‘obvious’ conclusion rooted in their own prejudices are still relevant to modern audiences, is both a comment on how strong the writing is in Reginald Rose’s Emmy-winning play, and how far our societies have failed to learn the lessons of decades past in the age of the Tea Party, of UKIP and of Britain First.
Tellingly, we learn the absolute minimum about each of the jurors that we need to make the play work – even in the cast list, they’re identified as Jurors number 1-12, unnamed, and at the start of the play, eleven of them are ready to send the defendant to the electric chair. This isn’t to say they’re all unthinking racists – Rose’s writing is better and smarter than that. He goes to pains to show that the evidence does look highly convincing. There are two witnesses to the defendant’s guilt. There’s a special knife as murder weapon, and witnesses who saw the defendant with it the night before the murder. There are what seem like holes in the defendant’s alibi. As it’s first presented, the evidence invites the audience, like eleven of the twelve jury members, to conclude the young boy must be guilty.
Tom Conti, taking the Fonda role of the dissenting jury member, brings a lot to the stage. A lot of time, a lot of experience, a lot of confidence to pause, to treat the stage like a real environment. And slowly, by degrees, he, and eventually others on the jury, show that what looked so simple, so open and shut, is actually anything but – it’s just our own inherently prejudiced interpretation of the evidence that makes things seem like certainties. It’s important to note that at no point does Conti’s juror ever claim the boy is innocent. Not once. The most that’s claimed is that there’s a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. This is absolutely not ‘Eleven Angry Men and One Good One.’ It’s Twelve. Twelve Angry Men.
Conti absolutely carries the piece, but he’s by no means alone up there, shouldering the expositional burden. Denis Lill is superb as one of Conti’s chief adversaries, claiming throughout to be the voice of ‘common sense’ and only cracking under the pressure of heat and exhaustion and frustration, to reveal the river of bigotry that fuels his brain. When Lill comes out with a rant about ‘their kind’ and how they’ll ‘outbreed us, and come and kill us,’ a modern audience squirms uncomfortably, not because of any outright remaining tension between black people and white people (its clear original intention, given that the play was written during the time of Jim Crow, before the full flowering of the civil rights movement), but very definitely with an awareness of the easy religious prejudice that is the modern equivalent of that original divide. Where original audiences were invited to think of the young defendant as black, Lill’s horrifying rant invites modern audiences to imagine him as a young disenfranchised Muslim.
There’s superb work here too from Andrew Lancel, the last hold-out of the twelve for a guilty verdict, who reveals he has personal issues with young men as his own son ran away from him after receiving repeated beatings to ‘make him a man’. There’s a witchfinder zeal in his determination to ‘fry’ the boy, and it becomes appallingly clear as he practically breaks down that he’s willing to send a boy to his death as a symbolic effigy of revenge on his own son. A very angry man indeed.
Sean Power also gives an appropriately impressive performance as the juror who just wants an easy life. He has things to do, people to see, most specifically a ball game to get to, so he’s happy to go with a guilty verdict – to send a young man to the electric chair – swayed by the ‘obvious’ into not engaging his brain with the responsibility he’s been given. When he changes his verdict, the fact that he’s actually changed his mind, having thought it through, comes as a magnificent, comic surprise.
It’s not all anger and casual contempt though. Paul Beech as Juror 9 shows a more hopeful side to humanity as Conti’s first convert, not because he particularly believes the doubt that has been shown is a valid one, but because he respects the Conti character’s integrity for having a doubt and not simply bowing under pressure. Edward Halsted’s Juror 11 likewise brings an older, more philosophical side to the play as an immigrant from Eastern Europe who explains that the ideas of trial by jury and of reasonable doubt are precious, and some of the most impressive things about fifties America. They cannot be treated lightly.
And what of David-Lloyd? His Juror 12 is, more than any other, the voice of the audience. He plays a bright, enthusiastic, but actually rather hopeless young advertising executive – a pre-Mad Men Mad Man – and he seems riddled with insecurities about his ability to do the job, to be the confident schmuck he sees others at his agency being, to get ahead. Within the jury room, he’s the ultimate follower, flip-flopping from conviction in the defendant’s guilt at the start, to having a reasonable doubt, back to certainty, and finally back to doubt – he makes the journey twice over, while most of his fellows only make it once, if at all. In a way, David-Lloyd’s Juror 12 allows us as the audience not to be angry, or prejudiced, or even to have strong convictions either way – we, like him, find ourselves looking at things from each perspective, and we find in him an excuse to make a lack of strong conviction either way alright. Certainly, David-Lloyd’s performance is believable, for all it’s not one of the largest or most central roles. He brings a naturalism to it that was never quite there in the overtly buttoned-down Ianto (except perhaps when watching Paul O’Grady talk about planets in the sky), and the character’s insecurities are convincingly realised by his smiley, peppy, fake-laughing persona as it gives way to the vacillating truth beneath. He finds a pathway into the character that allows the fact that Rose gifted him with having to make the journey twice realistic, as though as a human being he’s not sure of very much at all, and goes with the flow too often.
Among the many things we’re left to ponder at the end of the play is how the experience of being on this particular jury will affect the jurors’ lives going forward, and nowhere is that more true than in David-Lloyd’s Juror 12.
Twelve Angry Men will continue to be powerful drama as long as there’s prejudice and a jury system. This latest version absolutely delivered the important messages at the heart of the play, with an ensemble cast each focused on the reality of their characters. In terms of Gareth David-Lloyd, perhaps the truth about Twelve Angry Men is not so much that Ianto lives, as that it’s time to accept that Ianto’s dead, and that David-Lloyd is broadening his range, delivering nuanced performances alongside theatrical giants.