12 Angry Men - Athenaeum Theatre

You are the thirteenth jury member. Like it or not, you have been given a grave responsibility, and you better make sure that you play your part carefully. A man’s life hangs in the balance, and a wrong decision can land him in the electric chair, or let a guilty man walk the streets. Choose carefully: if you get it wrong it will haunt you forever.

Such is the intensity of 12 Angry Men that you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of their deliberations. As the jury members tread the boards in front of you – a cross section of 1950s New York white males – presenting cogent arguments for both guilt or innocence, each audience member is swayed one way or the other. The well meaning but useless request to put prejudices aside before walking into the room is especially tough given the heat and passion of the arguments. What starts off as a black and white case (literally) soon develops a rainbow of grey hues as the certainty of truth and facts dissolves into a murky collection of presumptions and conjecture.

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-A. said…
12 Angry Men is the stage play brought to life by Guy Masterson. Whilst the time and place is true to the original play – a hot night in New York in the 1950s – the cast is all Australian, and best of all, all authentic. It’s no coincidence that the photographs of the 12 in the marketing for the play closely resemble mug-shots, no smile in sight and only the name and number being absent to separate it from the real thing.

The 12 jury members are generally not a nice bunch of people, racked by their own prejudices, their own slowly emerging back story, and their own motivations for seeing the same set of facts as they do. The tag of likeable could be reserved for only a few, namely those who manage to rise above their own prejudices and try and see the case – and the world – through the other end of the telescope.

The cast is strong and consistent. An A-list of Australian male stars strut the stage, let ably by Shane Bourne and Marcus Graham, although given the nature of the work as an ensemble piece, the work is shared evenly by all twelve. Occasionally the testosterone-charged machismo of the characters becomes overpowering. Part of this relates to the nature of the characters as feisty, assertive people eager to leave their imprint on the proceedings in the jury room. Part of it also relates to the fact that with such a large cast, some players are inevitably quiet for some large chunks, and so when they are given the chance, they launch into their lines with great energy and gusto. Beyond the first five minutes, when setting and context is being established, there is barely a moment of civil conversation – instead it is a locker-room milieu of interruptions, one-up-manship and verbal chest-thumping. Fun for a while, but tiring after a while longer.

The play is not just a single act play, but is also a single scene and single set play, all set in real time (a clock in the background provides winking acknowledgment of this). All this places tremendous pressure on the director to provide sufficient variation to prevent it from being a glorified debating competition. Broad sweeping movements and confidence in body-language (for a while it seems that all twelve are trying to out-swagger each other) make sure that the play is a visual spectacle as much as it is an interesting intellectual exercise. The architect-map floor plan, which demarks the bathroom (in a style similar to Lars von Trier in Dogville) creates a convenient location for more intimate and subtle moments, which are few but poignant.

By the end, we, the thirteenth jury member are as reflective and doubt-riddled as our twelve colleagues. But we’ve had a great night out in the process.

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