Theatre review: Twelve Angry Men is lyrical and incisive

Review Theatre

TWELVE ANGRY MEN

Nine Years Theatre (Singapore)

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Last Friday

Entering a courtroom is something like entering a gladiator's ring. The verbal sparring cuts to the quick, the witnesses are demolished on the stand and one can almost hear the clang of metal on metal as lawyers cross swords.

Singapore theatre director Nelson Chia's confident and compelling staging of Twelve Angry Men takes that cold hand of justice and strips it down to its shaky emotional core.

From the moment his 12 angry men shuffle into the jury room to the second the last person leaves, the audience is presented with an engrossing scrutiny of justice, prejudice and what it means to be human.

The play's premise will be familiar to anyone who has seen the classic 1954 teleplay of the same name: Twelve jurors have to decide if a 16-year-old boy is guilty of stabbing and killing his father. The penalty is the gallows and these 12 men need to reach an unanimous decision. Suffice to say, they do not.

Twelve Angry Men is presented under the banner of Nine Years Theatre, the latest addition to Singapore's growing list of theatre companies, as well as the Esplanade's annual Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts.

American playwright Reginald Rose's seminal script gets an all-Mandarin treatment and the result is startlingly refreshing. Chia's translation of the work gives his small orchestra of actors a text that is as lyrical as it is incisive.

Every twist and turn in the sinuous plot is treated with care and Chia brings a subtlety and a taut pace to a talky work that could otherwise turn repetitive and shouty. His attention to detail permeates every inch of the play, from the distinctive body language of each character to the eerie whirring of the wall-mounted fan when the room goes silent.

Special mention must go to Wong Chee Wai's elegant set, with a forced perspective that lends the jury room an ominous sense of claustrophobia.

Each scene is choreographed deftly - the cluster of men pulls together and falls apart in beautiful visual phrases - without any of the clunky chess-piece arranging that can come with larger ensembles.

Not all of the actors are evenly matched in presence and craft. Some of the smaller roles get swallowed up in the fray and some of the actors are visibly and audibly uncomfortable when it comes to speaking in Mandarin. But there are definitely several actors who hold court. And as a whole, their chemistry tingles.

Jeffrey Low cuts a commanding figure as the architect, the lone voice of dissent in a cacophony of "guilty" verdicts, a role made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet. Tay Kong Hui, who plays the primary antagonist, navigates a blistering rollercoaster of passion and pain in his attempt to win the jury over to his point of view.

And despite a smaller speaking role, Chinese theatre stalwart Johnny Ng manages to knit the entire cast together as the jury foreman, with his effortless gravitas and nuanced delivery.

Together, the characters dissect the minutiae of the crime's evidence and ponder - What is "beyond a reasonable doubt"? Will they be setting a murderer on the loose? Or will they be saving an innocent boy from the hangman? Do they have the right to judge another human being? What are their secret (and not-so-secret) personal prejudices? And can emotion and justice ever be separated?

Chia keeps the rhythm of the work going at a tight clip and his choice of setting Twelve Angry Men in an unnamed metropolis gives the play a universality that hits home across cultures. Whether one is reminded of the chilling xenophobia that has started to grip Singapore or the ignorant racism that continues to exist today, this 1950s play reveals that, sadly, while certain things have changed for the better, others have changed for the worse.

And it is still a burning reminder that more than 50 years later, the figures who populate the judicial system are not just righteous and angry. They are tired, frustrated and flawed - and also deeply and powerfully human.

In a nutshell, my verdict is: excellent.

corriet@sph.com.sg