In Haunt

By Dr Emma Liggins (Manchester Metropolitan University and the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies)

Recently described as ‘Manchester’s hidden gem’, Hope Mill Theatre is tucked away in a quiet Ancoats street, yet close to Piccadilly Station and the fashionable Northern Quarter. Open since November 2015, this atmospheric and intimate venue is already making a name for itself as a showcase for fringe productions, independent drama and innovative musical theatre. A converted Manchester mill with its dark corners and rows of glittering windows seemed eerily appropriate as a setting for Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s compelling death row drama The Exonerated (running until the 16 June, event information available here). 

The Exonerated

This inspiring production mixes film and theatre, jumping between screenings of the testimonies of former death row inmates and live performances of court cases, interrogations, murders and everyday prison life. The play, which premiered on Broadway in 2002, and was made into a film in 2005, is based on interviews conducted by Blank and Jensen in 2000 with those exonerated from their death sentences. Some of the interviewees had served up to 22 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Director Joseph Houston explains, ‘I want people to have a completely unique theatre experience by coming to see The Exonerated. I want them to be moved by these incredible humans who through all the odds and with facing death square in the face – fought for their voices to be heard and their freedom to be granted.’

This unique experience is realised through concentrating on the juxtapositions of the testimonies and silences of the actors on screen, and the short scenes acted out by the dynamic cast, as well as the innovative stage layout. The actors’ occupation of a space bound on both sides by a barbed-wire fence, between an audience divided into two halves which face each other, mimics the nightmarish claustrophobia of confined spaces like the prison cell and the interrogation room. The audience’s function as jury is an unsettling reminder of complicity, questioning the system which renders innocent citizens powerless in the face of the death sentence.

The Exonerated

As an exposure of the corruption of the American criminal justice system, the play is unashamedly hard-hitting, with some horrific images, violent scenes and traumatic memories. Its analysis of the after-effects of gun-crime, imprisonment and rape makes this a highly contemporary production. The close-ups of the actors’ faces on the screens, borrowed from true crime documentary, have to be interpreted alongside the fights and interrogations on stage and the more meditative reflections on the nightmares of those thrown onto ‘the scrapheap of humanity’, as one character believes. As you might expect, it raises questions about innocence and guilt, about convictions based on race, sexuality and class, about those deemed freaks or perverts in the American courts. Jack Kristiansen, whose character’s alleged homosexuality conditions his prison experience, describes the play as ‘this fascinating, horrifying and important collection of stories’, testifying to the script’s confrontation of our fascination with horror and violence and its consequences.

 Highlights of the production were the versatility of up-and-coming young actors such as Ben Boskovic and Rebecca Eastham, who played victims, interrogators, prisoners and judges with sensitivity and maturity, and Pippa Winslow’s moving performance as Sunny, wrongfully convicted with her husband of killing two policemen. Her character describes death row imprisonment as like being ‘locked inside a tomb … like being thrown into a well’, a painfully resonant link to the statistic displayed on the screen of the 1499 people executed in the US since 1976. At times the footage on the screens can be distracting (not sure of the relevance of the blizzards!) and I would have liked the actors on stage to get a few more extended scenes. Whilst the propagandist nature of the play will be a bit too intrusive for some, this is a highly recommended immersive theatre experience, which will make you question your fascination with true crime and death row stories.

The Exonerated

The Exonerated runs up until the 16 June 2019, with more event information available online. Look out for future performances at Hope Mill Theatre too: from June 18th- 22nd, a new interpretation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and in July and early August, two weeks of Mancunian fringe theatre, including some pre-Edinburgh festival shows. Who needs Edinburgh when we have Manchester!

Photography with thanks to Shay Rowan

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