Thursday 23 January 2020

The Welkin at the National, or, Twelve Women in a Room Arguing

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Monday 20th January 2020. The Press Night took place last night.

The premise of this play is an admirable one. Essentially it takes the idea of the classic Twelve Angry Men and turns it into twelve women. We do not see such an ensemble often enough on stage and I hope this flawed (from where I was sitting) attempt will be a spur to others to carry the idea forward. This show is blessed by an excellent, in some cases underused, ensemble, but the play itself doesn't quite work.

The plot concerns Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) who has been condemned to death for her part in a murder but has claimed to be pregnant. In consequence twelve women have been empanelled to decide whether she is so, with a single male officer of the court in the room with them who is not allowed to speak. The problems arise from how this idea is executed. It takes too long before we are locked in the room with this jury. Musing about it as I walked home I became increasingly convinced that the play would benefit from cutting all the scenes before the empanelment and letting any information we may need from them filter out through the jury room debate - this would also leave room for more mystery, more tension. Because the next issue is that we are told far too much about the prisoner before that debate even starts - there's not enough left to discover about her to generate needed dramatic tension once we're in the jury room. In consequence, in Act Two, writer Lucy Kirkwood resorts to a surfeit of revelations about our jurors which feels overblown - less, as so often would have been more.

There are also plot elements which interfere with the pacing (a possible romance at the beginning) and are then abandoned - again the idea could have been done much more effectively as a dynamic that slips out in the course of the twelve's debate. Some moments are just unexplained - the bizarre angel-like figure winched skyward at the start of Act Two. There's the customary several uses of the word "fuck" to indicate this is a serious new play - in this case jarring with the attempt to establish a historical period through appropriate language. Late on there's a key plot twist that just did not convince me given the whole way that the two characters (Zmitrowicz and the officer of the court Philip McKinley) had behaved to that point. As with many new works Kirkwood struggles with the ending - I suspect I was supposed to be shocked but things felt too drawn out. Tension had, for me, rather drained away.

The play rarely finds that focused power of debate that, as I recall, made Twelve Angry Men compelling. The balance between monologue and discussion, the positioning of revelations, doesn't all quite fit together with that taut, driven development that a crime drama as this essentially is really needs. It's almost as if the play becomes a prisoner of its setting. On the one hand it's quite clearly trying to make points about female power - it's drummed into us several times that that single male court officer must remain silent in the jury room - and it does have intriguing things to say about the balance of power between the sexes. And yet the set up gives the women comparatively little scope for meaty debate - there are only so many angles of proof and they get exhausted fairly quickly - the play is thus driven to move onto the jurors secrets and grievances but the mingling of these two narrative strands is flawed dramatically. While I could understand the point of silencing the man I thought it would have been more courageous to have allowed an approach that offered debate - the few men here are condemned by the extremity of their words and actions - but I venture to suggest that most men are as complicated as most women and the play ultimately shies away from that.

Kirkwood also narrows the scope of the women's intellectual world. Bar one perfunctory discussion of politics and war, and a monologue about an unjust justice system which feels a bit too much like a lecture, the twelve are confined to talk of their domestic lives and experiences of pregnancy. The presence in this Suffolk world of a Scot and a middle class woman gives scope for broader perspectives which the play does not venture. But I also simply wasn't convinced that the thoughts of the group as a whole would confine themselves to these limited tracks.

The best aspect of this show is the excellent ensemble. There are three particularly powerful presences. Zmitrowicz has an electric ferocity, a contempt for the whole scenario which despite her unpleasant character makes her a compelling presence. Haydn Gwynne gives a typically commanding performance as Charlotte, and does her level best to make her character's abrupt revelation convincing. Maxine Peake as Elizabeth is a similarly powerful, watchable stage presence. I was really pleased to see June Watson again after her fine performance in John and I wish the text had given her more to do. Wendy Kweh's Helen brings a welcome, touching gentleness to the ensemble, making her explosion of bitterness in Act Two one of the most powerful moments of the evening - again I would love to see her in a bigger role. The rest of the women all give strong performances, though the writing of one or two of them (the middle class English interloper and the Scot) does unfortunately verge a little towards caricature - the Scot of course has to be given an anti-English line in her very first speech. Paul McGinley shows he can do still and silent (abilities I prize highly) and, not least because I'm a sentimentalist, I was sorry that Kirkwood proved uninterested in exploring further the relationship she uses up an early scene to introduce. Laurence Ubong Williams is impressively versatile in his three roles - I had not realised until looking again at the programme that he had been all three.

The setting looks less lost on the large Lyttelton stage than many Norris era productions but still doesn't find that effortless comfortableness with it that directors like Marianne Elliott and the late Howard Davies possessed. Another problem of the pre-empanelment scenes is that the set changes between each further slow the drama. The trial room itself is too large and open where it needs to feel claustrophobic. Trying to make the audience the mob feels a bit tired - I never felt really made complicit or a sufficiently strong sense of external threat. Jamie Macdonald conjures some effective group moments but overall movement is solid rather than inspired.

The premise of this show is a fine one. The ensemble a wealth of talent all of whom should be seen again soon on the National and our other stages. The play certainly has points of interest. I feel there's a really strong piece there - I don't know what the editorial process is at the National for new work, but I do think reworking at an earlier stage could have been transformative. As it is it's worth seeing for strong individual performances but the work as a whole ultimately frustrates.

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