Monday, 10 June 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Exonerated - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

With 1970s America as its backdrop, ‘The Exonerated’, written by Jessica Blank and Eric Jenson, tells the true stories of six people who were wrongfully accused of crimes and sentenced to death row, only to be acquitted after varying numbers of years, with some as high as 20.

My first reaction upon entering the theatre was intrigue. The audience were given a letter, either X or Y, and split off through two different doors. On this occasion, Hope Mill’s flexible theatre space had been set up as a traverse, with audience members on two sides. The set design from Jessica Staton was almost breath-taking. All of the performance took place within a chain link fenced box with barbed wire on top, where we were not allowed to properly glimpse the actors. Through doing this, the audience are forced back and separated from the action taking place. A bold choice, but an important one for the theme of the play as the audience are made to feel helpless and useless as we watch these innocent people have their lives torn away. They are trapped on stage, performing for us.

The blending of live performance with pre-recorded footage was another bold choice; but one which worked well. A large portion of the production was played out on television screens in the style of a crime documentary. I must say, the acting was so sublime in these pieces of footage that I actually wondered if this were a real documentary to be found online. Praise must be given to Gary Fannin, Eva Fontaine, Lucy Greenway, Jack Kristiansen, Kevin Mathurin, Pippa Winslow and Law X for their amazingly subtle and believable performances that had many audience members choking back tears. This use of the documentary to tell these characters’ stories just highlights that we live in a culture of demanding entertainment from the trauma of real lives. The film-maker Grant Archer captured the essence of a documentary brilliantly here.

The lighting and sound design (from Aaron J Dootson and Eliyana Evans respectively) was complex, and yet it has to be said that it was utterly flawless. It aided in the telling of these stories beautifully, by creating a thunderstorm, police cars, an interrogation room, a jury; the list is endless. The stage inside the barbed wire itself was bare and minimal props were used, but that didn’t take away from the production in the slightest as Dootson and Evans really created these spaces for us. The audience were even lit-up a couple of times when in the court room as we were invited into these narratives as members of the jury. Despite all of these complex elements, the whole show was fast-paced and without a moment’s hiatus; even when moving from screen to stage and back again.

The actors who performed live on stage all had very well polished accents, displaying varying American dialects. Bringing in a vocal coach clearly worked in the production’s favour, as Nicola Redman did an admirable job here. The actors on stage wove seamlessly from one character to another to recreate the stories being told on the screens above them.

On the whole this production was superb, and brilliantly directed by Joseph Houston, also a co-founder of the theatre itself. Houston has been listed in ‘The Stage 100 Most Influential People in Theatre’, and after seeing this production, I can appreciate why. This is not your traditional piece of theatre, it is so much more than that. I urge you to see this production, if only to witness a new technique in theatre making.

Reviewer - Megan Relph
on - 9/6/19

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