Review: hang by debbie tucker green

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The classical definition for justice is to get what one deserves in proportion to an act committed by an individual – this understanding of what justice is (in both the abstract and very often painful practical sense) is in the context of Western society and philosophy. Undoubtedly, this is a privileged view. It presumes that all are treated equally in the eyes of the law; however, with court backlogs, underpaid junior barristers and a government dying on its backside unable to do anything about these issues; this view of a intrinsic sense of egalitarianism in our justice system has certainly become a rather laughable proposition.

This backdrop of overt and very damaging failures in our criminal justice system is the broader cultural background on which hang, written by debbie tucker green (no I haven’t forgotten capital letters, this is how she stylises herself and her work), should come to be viewed and interpreted. One overarching aspect I really do appreciate and admire in tucker green’s work is her commitment to realism in drama. Her plays are not frivolous abstractions, rather they are portrayals and fundamental dramatisations of life in modern Britain. Indeed, the Journal of Contemporary Drama in English has described her as “one of the most stylistically innovative and politically engaged playwrights at work in Britain today”. 

Notably, this desire to grapple with cultural issues has been a hallmark since she first won the Olivier Award for most promising newcomer for her play born bad in 2004. Throughout all of her works (whether they have been on the stage or the screen) there is a clear appetite to deal with the cultural issues facing us in our own times and, by dealing with them, realising the emotive and challenging core of these kinds of issues.

Noticeably, this play put its own spin on the text and was, in terms of production and staging, far more different than previous productions of the play. hang was premiered at the Royal Court Theatre (London is the natural literary habitat of tucker green) in 2015, performed by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Clair Rushbrook and Shane Zaza. The set, designed then by John Bausor, was set totally in darkness, only illuminated by a series of fluorescent lights. The location of this production of hang was far more different: rather, this version of the play took place in the Durham Union departing chamber, overlooked by the grand and foreboding Durham Cathedral. What this choice did for the play when compared to the more conventional choice of producing the play on stage was a sterling decision by virtue of the fact that it gave the production a more developed sense of place and time. The debating chamber, lit minimally, created a rather gloomy and foreboding atmosphere which really made this production feel like a true and powerful piece of what one might call ‘occasion theatre.’ 

It was clear that the most impressive part of the acting in this production was the ability to mix bursts of genuine comedic moments with equally genuine moving and emotional outbursts.

Speaking to one of the producers, they said that the debating chamber gave the sense of a courtroom. Particularly in the context of this production, ‘debate’ as a theme was mirrored in the location of this production and worked to enforce themes of justice and created a legal milieu which hung over the play from start to finish.   

Another interesting consequence which arose from this dramatic choice to use the debating chamber was that it meant that the audience was extremely close to the actors. Indeed, I would guess that those sitting on the front rows were less than six feet away at times. This cosy propinquity between actor and audience member is often a double-edged sword, with it as a dramatic choice either working very well or (on the other hand) becoming over-stylised and, in a sort of paradoxical way, distracting the audience away from what’s happening on the stage. However, luckily this production fitted into the category of the former.

The close audience placement adopted by this production worked to engage me in the drama of the play, helped to intensify the emotional heft of the play and, in turn, create a more piercing comment on the state of justice in Britain. 

And to the credit of the three actors performing, all met to the challenge of an audience almost breathing down their necks, which one can imagine lent another layer of pressure when performing the play. It was clear that the most impressive part of the acting in this production was the ability to mix bursts of genuine comedic moments with equally genuine moving and emotional outbursts. One might describe the quality of the acting as like an artist’s paint palette: mixing different colours of emotion, ranging from comedic to purely tragic moments, in order to create the rich emotional colour of the overall production.

Focusing now on wider themes in this production, it was clear that this production captured the ‘Kafkaesque’ style and tone implicit in the text, presenting the absurdity of the individual fighting against a vast and anonymous criminal justice system.

Coming back to the points I first made, it is abundantly clear that there are a plethora of very worrying and real problems in our criminal justice system, whether you want to focus on the problem of court backlogs, issues of racism in the police and the courts, and issues faced by women when seeking justice. 

In all, it was very enjoyable to watch a student production grappling with themes of this gravity and severity. Rather than being weighed down and stifled by themes of such intensity, this cast and crew revelled in these kinds of themes and societal issues and offered a moving, intense and enthralling treatment of the text and the production overall.

Image credit: Fourth Wall Company

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