Johannes Hjorth

David Hare’s Murmuring Judges is an unashamedly didactic political drama critiquing the current prison system. Opening in a courtroom, it presents a series of strong-minded characters for us to observe and judge. Criminals, lawyers, policemen, politicians, even a judge, are scrutinised under Hare’s cutting and playful gaze. These characters came alive in this cast of strong actors led by director Will Bishop, who approached the play with the subtlety and unrelenting energy. Tense, sharp, and fast-paced, this was a production that manipulated and toyed with the audience, creating a night that was thought-provoking, touching, and above all exciting.

The plot focused on a wrongly-convicted prisoner named Gerard and his lawyer, Irina. Played by Joe Shalom and Kate Reid respectively, the actors were effortlessly charismatic, able to time one-liners with precision whilst also retaining the audience’s attention throughout long monologues. They complemented each other, and their scenes together were particularly moving. What was particularly touching and evoking to view is the way that both characters developed over the course of the play. The way they spoke, their outlook on the world, and even the way they held themselves changed completely, and this was subtly but visibly displayed so that we really felt that we had got under the skin of the characters.

Although the focus of the play was on this relationship and the social issues that they faced in a world of champagne-swilling middle-class lawyers and tired and corrupt coppers, there were still plenty of moments of satire and comedy. Tom Chamberlain exploited his role as Sir Peter, a fusty old barrister, to absolute perfection. Initially he fit neatly into his stereotype, but Chamberlain’s ability to deliver ridiculously ironic lines with a blank face and seeming ignorance had the audience laughing loudly. Sam Knights was similarly notable, contrasting his refined, sly portrayal of the Home Secretary with the exasperated, dry and brash figure of a policeman. Emma Blacklay-Piech also displayed great versatility. She tottered around on the stage as the glamorous lawyers’ clerk Woody, worldly and sophisticated, only to sashay on stage five minutes later as a sassy criminal in a police station, looking (if it's possible) like a sexy version of Vicky Pollard.

One of the most interesting aspects of the play was the portrayal of police detective Barry, played by Jack Parham, and his girlfriend and co-worker Sandra, played by Sophia Flohr. Both were excellent actors; Flohr was particularly engaging as an uptight but gentle police officer, and Parham was an energetic and responsive counterpart. However, the dynamic between the two wasn’t quite right. They didn’t feel like a couple, and this detracted from the moral dilemma which sits at the heart of the play. Flohr is more than anyone the ‘murmuring judge’ of the play’s title, and her decision and weighing up of moral and ethical values should have been clouded by her sizzling romance, and without the sizzle a key element of this puzzle was missing.

The staging and scene changes were, at times, a little distracting. The set was dominated by a large wooden structure, with steps leading up to a shelf that sat over the stage and acted as Gerard’s prison. While it worked well as a prison, it didn’t adapt to the many other locations of the play. The script demanded a courtroom, a judge’s chambers, a police station, and the painted black and wooden background seemed out of place. The changes between scenes were usually swift and punctuated with music that kept the energy alive, but occasionally sirens and flashing lights would interject for seemingly no reason.

Still, these distractions did not overshadow from what was overwhelmingly a playful and smooth piece of theatre. The scenes bled into one-another, and the play had a feel of vibrancy and energy that meant that time flew by. It juggled juxtaposing scenes expertly, so that the audience didn’t know what to expect next. The issues of the play weren’t resolved, but there was no element of confusion about the production. Clear-cut, memorable, it sliced through Hare’s work with a precise eye.  

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