More of a death penalty polemic than a fully articulated or developed play, Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence states situations rather than dramatises them.
Sarah Esdaile’s production (that has transferred to the West End from the studio theatre of Manchester’s Royal Exchange) seeks to inject, so to speak, as much tension as possible into the long delayed but inexorable journey that the two Death Row inmates we meet are on towards the lethal injection execution chamber in an southern state American prison.
But you learn nothing here that you couldn’t discover in an Amnesty International report, Guardian feature or even the programme notes: ending up on death row is a lottery; the endless legal appeals are a desperate but inevitable attempt to fight the finality of the sentence any which way the prisoners can; and, despite the crimes they stand accused for, the perpetrators are human, too.
With the two prisoners acted with searing and convincing commitment by Ben Cross and Alex Ferns, there’s a gradual revelation of accumulating detail around what has brought them here, but no persuasive progression beyond it. Of course, it could be said that since the process ends in their eventual deaths, there’s nowhere further to go. In which case, though, there’s not much of a play; and so it proves.
Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, recently revived by the Oxford Stage Company on tour and at the Tricycle Theatre, created a gathering tension and momentum around a hanging about to take place in a Dublin prison by showing the preparations and impact on the rest of the participants in the process, but never introduced us to the executed man himself whose inexorable fate was ultimately being charted.
Graham’s play, by contrast, demonises one inmate, then humanises him, while it takes the opposite path towards revealing the truth about the other inmate as it seeks to make him own up to his own guilt.
Ferns – his arms streaked with tattoos, one eye clouded by blindness and maintaining a convincingly acted limping gait – brings the racist, redneck hick to vivid life. Cross, too, provides a psychologically detailed performance as the far more articulate John Brennan, who publishes the Death Row Advocate. Brennan’s newsletter gives voice to the men on death row and seeks to dignify them in death by penning sensitive obituaries without reference to the crimes that led to their executions.
But neither character has anywhere to go except towards death, and the attempt to provide some external texture in the thankless roles of a desperately underwritten New York Times journalist and a female prison warder (Eric Loren and Jo Martin respectively) irritate rather than illuminate.
So, ultimately, does the play that contains them, despite the conviction of the leading performances.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates March 2004 and this production’s original run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
If one man kills a drug addict and another one kills a group of children, which one deserves to die for his crime? What separates these men from one another? Both are murderers and both are human beings. These are some of the thought-provoking and topical questions raised by Bruce Graham's superb drama.
Ben Cross plays John Brennan, an intelligent and articulate man who whiles away his time on Death Row by communicating with journalists, attempting to tell the untold story about each man in chains. Newcomer, Bobby Reyburn (Alex Ferns) is moved into the cell next door. This racist predator is hated by the prison guard, Shawna (Jo Martin) and receives no empathy from New York Times journalist, Sam Fried (Eric Loren). All the while Brennan seeks publicity via letters to newspapers. His never ending need to paint a picture of the men behind the 'monster' tags continues. Reyburn accepts his fate whereas Brennan wants to fight his.
This fascinating tale paints a vivid picture of desperate, lonely misunderstood characters. Superb performances all round manage to quash any preconceived ideas that you may have about people behind bars.
Ferns proves what a fascinating actor he has become with a multi-layered and moving turn as the childlike Bobby Reyburn. Cross is also excellent as the mentor that people both fear and love for his intelligence. Martin provides bitter sweet humour as the guard who tells you she feels nothing but inside is hurting as much as the men she controls. "My husband left me for another man, Jack Daniels", she sighs as she takes another swig to numb the pain that her job brings.
Matt Atwood's concrete set provides the audience with a sense of claustrophobia, enabling the actors to display every trapped emotion. Likewise Aideen Malone's high contrast lighting creates shadows of the prison bars offering the men no escape.
Sarah Esdaile's assured direction allows the audience to question their views on capital punishment and read between the lines of a tabloid headline. This combined with Graham's rich writing means there are no preachy melodramatic scenes.
There are no easy answers to many of the questions raised but this timely glimpse at the human faces behind the prison walls is relevant, moving and incredibly powerful.
- Glenn Meads