Anybody who has been the victim of crime knows the range of emotions that one experiences – the more distressing the crime, the more deeply rooted the anger and pain experienced. All too often, the media reports of sentences for crimes being too short and lenient, and the chances of the perpetrators reoffending as being high. So what is the solution? Alongside ‘retributive justice’ that is universally established, Britain has a scheme for ‘restorative justice’ where victims and offenders can meet face-to-face and possibly find closure. Harriet Madeley – artistic director of theatre company Crowded Room – has over the past two years conducted interviews with participants of this scheme, to create an important piece of verbatim theatre. With direction by Max Barton, The Listening Room is greater than the sum of its parts.
Performed by Ryan Gerald, Cathy Tyson, Mark Knightley, Neran Persaud and Harriet Madeley, they each take on the role of one the two offenders (Khamran and Jacob) or one of the three victims (Tim, plus Ray and Vi Donovan). Who performs what is determined each night by chance.
Envelopes containing photos of the five characters are placed randomly on the studio’s seats and at the appropriate time, those who have the envelopes pass them to an actor of their choice. Once the roles are assigned, the actors go to a specific part of the studio where the dialogue for their character is played through headphones, which in turn is performed verbatim. After their line(s) of dialogue are spoken, the actor turns the light above them off, whereupon the next person to speak turns theirs on, and so forth.
If it all sounds a bit ‘mechanical’, the ‘routine’ feels natural when observed and what the audience focuses on is the dialogue spoken. At poignant stages of the show, the cast stop what they are doing and bit by bit leave a painted facsimilie of themselves on a wall using their face and hands. The images they leave behind are of people in pain – the people who have lost someone or been beaten, and those who can’t forgive themselves for their past actions…
It’s a testament to the show’s material, performances and direction that the threads for the offenders are just as heartbreaking as the victims’ stories, especially with Jacob’s, whose mother bore the brunt of the consequences of his actions. Khamran’s propensity for grevious bodily harm is recalled with unflinching clarity, which occurred at a time when empathy had all but been eroded by drug use. ‘Waking up’ from this state to the self-awareness of the violence one is capable of has to be deeply perturbing.
Guaranteed to pull on the heart strings though is Ray and Vi’s tale. From the off their chemistry and love for each other is evident and we feel we know all about their sons, Chris and Phil. By the time they get to the unprovoked attack on their sons and the aftermath, it isn’t short and swift, but emotionally nuanced – in some ways a truncated version of the five stages of grieving with the denial, anger, bargaining, depression… As for Tim, agreeing to meet the person who took a baseball hat to one’s head has to be on the ballsiest and frightening things one can do…
If The Listening Room teaches us anything, it’s that for both sets of participants in the restorative justice scheme, it’s a win-win situation. For the victims, the anger that eats away at them and defines their existence can begin to abate, and in time they may feel whole. Meanwhile, by being genuinely contrite and admitting without embellishment or excuse their previous actions, the offenders may find that the victims at least understand why the events transpired and forgive them anyway.
The Listening Room is a prime example of everything good about theatre and what it tries to achieve. A means of bringing people from all walk of life together, The Listening Room not only tells hitherto untold stories, it also throws a light on the human condition and elicits that most fragile but precious quality – hope…
© Michael Davis 2017
The Listening Room runs at Gerry’s (across from Theatre Royal Stratford East) until Sat 30th September.