Twelve jurors gather in an anteroom in a courthouse in 1950s America to give a verdict on the murder case they have spent three days listening to. A young man’s life is in the balance, he faces the electric chair if they vote guilty. It’s a chilling experience, watching these men with the power of life and death: people with their own lives, their own histories, time pressures, and prejudices.
The most startling thing about Twelve Angry Men is how incredibly relevant it is. Considering most people will know this from the classic 1957 film, this is both sobering and quite frightening. Reginald Rose’s acute study of human nature still has a present-day flavour.
Patrick Duffy plays Juror Eight, the role made famous by Henry Fonda in the film, and says that the most incredible thing is that the script hasn’t changed much since that time. He also wears the classic cream coloured suit, yet he makes the role his own as he acknowledges that there would be a danger for any actor to try to copy such an iconic role. He plays the role with such calm, gentleness, and quiet perseverance; holding the audience in rapt attention throughout.
It’s an ensemble piece, superbly directed by Christopher Haydon, and each of the characters are real and grounded even if they represent more than their juror numbers in terms of opinions. The play is so well crafted: we learn so much about the deepest values of the men in the room giving us clear insight into their motivations and reasons for the stances they take. As they discuss all of the evidence they have heard and what it means, we hear the case unfold and are able to examine our own views about whether the boy is guilty, as well as our opinions about the jurors in front of us.
The set creeps into our consciousness too, almost a character of its own. They achieve an incredible claustrophobia and pervasive heat in the room, and we really believe we are several floors up with the noise of the traffic outside the windows and the sound of the trains announcing the acts. The table moving imperceptibly like the hands of a clock give us the bearing of time which is so important to the case and to them. More crucially, it shows a different perspective continually, emulating the discussions around the room.
Patrick Duffy talks about the importance of opening your mind and questioning what you believe. “The most dangerous thing, in my opinion, in all of life, is to be so resolute in your knowledge that you don’t accept the chance that there is something else, and that you might be mistaken,” he says, echoing what his character says and believes.
This play, so expertly done, shows us the value of listening to each other, about thinking things through rather than having knee-jerk reactions, and about being aware of your own baggage and prejudices. It also shows the importance of compassion. And it does all of that without being worthy or too wordy: it does it by taking us on an emotional roller coaster of a journey and bringing us to a knife edge. A thrilling, gripping classic, beautifully produced and superbly acted.
Theatre Royal Brighton, Monday 20th November 2023
Twelve Angry Men runs until Saturday 25th November
Photos by Jack Merriman