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Jury Play--A Response from Juror 6

Michael Cox describes what happened to him as a juror in Grid Iron and Traverse Theatre's recent production of Jury Play.

Perhaps I should begin this by answering two questions I kept getting asked upon leaving the Traverse One theatre space at the end of the Wednesday performance of Jury Play. One—no, I was not a plant. I was given number 053 upon entering the theatre space, and it was the sixth number drawn. And two—yes, we the jury were in on many of the events that occurred during the production.

After having taken our seats in the jury box, we were ushered back outside the theatre space. Sean Hay, who was serving as the Macer, immediately dropped his stern persona and warmly welcomed us, not only introducing himself but actors Neil John Gibson and Helen Mackay as Kenny and Janis, two jurors who were planted amongst us. We were given a brief rundown of what would happen in act one and given instructions of certain actions we were to perform, including standing/sitting and running a rubber across our foreheads at key moments. We were even given a cheat sheet, if you will, that gave a breakdown of what we were being asked to do.

Hay, Gibson and Mackay were welcoming and encouraging from the off. Filled with good humour and reassuring smiles, they consistently promised that all would be fine and that there was nothing that we could do that would screw up the performance. When we were brought back into the theatre to return to the jury box, the atmosphere was surprisingly light—we were in on everything and had been encouraged to enjoy the experience.

I’ll have to confess I found act one to be a little frustrating. I wanted to be a good juror and so I took out the supplied notepad and pen to take notes. But after performing a few of the actions, it became apparent—my role was not to be a juror but a living prop. However, once I accepted this, I began to enjoy the experience. I tried matching my facial expressions to the ‘thoughts’ I was supposedly thinking when my seat lit up, and I became a willing player in the jury shenanigans when they came to pass.

The interval was spent in a cold, bricked side chamber under the stairs. We were given bottles of water and caramel wafers while passing the time sat in chairs. We were also promised that the room would heat up—a forgivable white lie.

Many of us assumed we would be discussing a verdict, but Hay, Gibson and Mackay (who spent much of the interval with us) said that this would not be the case. They were in good spirits and cheer, being very complimentary on how things were going (maybe a little TOO positive and reassuring for those of us with theatrical backgrounds, but it worked a charm for those with little to no experience). The other cast members didn’t join us. As a jury is meant to have little contact with court staff and witnesses, that did seem fitting.

We were told what would happen in the second act, that we would be asked to move our chairs into the main playing area and that we would be changing positions throughout. We were given a few pointers, mainly to speak amongst ourselves in the moments we switched chairs and to NEVER sit in the red chair—the chair symbolising the invisible accused. A few lines were given out to willing jurors. One final line was going unclaimed, so in the spirit of the show I happily took it.**

By its own construction, act two was much more fun as a juror. After the preamble of plot that focused on jurors Janis and Kenny challenging the legal system, we the jury got to move our chairs into the court and found ourselves in the middle of the proceedings. Without question, this was the most interesting part of the production—not just watching actors play roles, but literally sitting shoulder to shoulder to characters as they spoke about difficult events made for riveting theatre. And while each actor played their role/roles well and found a way to connect with the jury that lingered among them, being on stage with John Bett as the judge just might be one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had for some time—his gravitas juxtaposed with a cheeky sense of humour made for a consistently compelling performance, and it was nothing short of a pleasure to experience first-hand.

The end came, and we all performed the last few actions we had been given: finish the play by staring at the red chair, and join the actors in the curtain call.

I’ve heard reports that preview juries were asked for their thoughts in the end on this supposed new system of justice—for a jury to be a far more active participant. It’s possible the question was posed to us, but I don’t remember it. But I can say that, as drama, Jury Play gave me a thrillingly theatrical experience, particularly in its second act. But as for actual practice? In truth, I think it would be a mistake. Surely the point of a court of law is to remove emotion and to focus primarily on the facts. By being among the players within the court, empathetic bonds were forged, and while the evidence against the accused was, at best, scattershot, the vast majority of people felt happy to vote ‘not guilty’—a verdict I struggled with as much as Janis seemed to wrestle with any verdict at the top of the second half.

And there were other things that, with hindsight, I struggle with. Dramatically, what is presented feels like an academic thesis. The actors made the experience palpable, but upon reflection the substance is rather flimsy. And director Ben Harrison's decision to play recorded conversations he had with writer Dr Jenny Scott about the production not only didn’t work but came across as smug and unnecessary.

So, in the end I find that I am in a tricky position, for in considering my verdict on the production and weighing all of the evidence and my feelings about the questions it poses, I feel the only just verdict is the one that wasn’t given as an option to audiences at the end: not proven.

**My line was: I only get paid £200, how is that fair?—or something there about. I hope I didn’t muck it up.

Jury Play has completed its run at the Traverse Theatre.

Tags: theatre

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