By Kallee Lins, February 22, 2018
During a recent trip to Washington, DC, I remember picking up a newspaper with a frontpage story about a death sentence gone wrong due to human error in the lethal injection process. Less shocking than the details of that particular story was the fact it had been written at all… capital punishment persists in 31 US states and, based on the tone of coverage, continues to be a source of fascination.
Here in Canada, a moratorium on the death penalty was established in 1967 with de jure abolishment in 1976. Abolishment came even earlier in UK where playwright debbie tucker green is based, and one can only imagine the topic feels equally taboo across the pond. In setting her play hang in an unsettling near future where capital punishment is not only alive and well, but the victims of violent crimes are intimately involved in the process – ultimately choosing the method of execution – green succeeds in making an unthinkable legal universe feel shockingly familiar.
There is an elegant sparseness pervading all elements of “hang.”
The entire play takes place in a single meeting room with only a table, some red chairs, a water cooler in the corner and a circular light fixture overhead.
There is an austere mundanity to the fluorescent-tinged space designed by Steve Lucas. The structure of the stage’s platform, a long, narrow, triangular shape, constricts space to the extent that the actors consistently move in sharp, linear pathways. The simplicity and strength arising from this blocking allows for green’s poetically-fragmented dialogue to be delivered in the restrained manner it calls out for.
Co-directing with Obsidian Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Philip Akin is Kymberley Rampersand, a multiple Dora award winner for choreography.
Credit is likely due to her astute eye for the creation of a pressure cooker atmosphere through the physical relationship between the three performers. In one particularly striking image, after Sarah Afful’s character faces a barrage of questions about how she is dealing with the violence she experienced, she attempts to turn the tables on her badgering bureaucrats by demanding information about the recent divorce of Haynes’ stern, but well-meaning official. We know the power dynamics have been reorganized as soon as Haynes abruptly stands and flees the table, creating a void of tense space between her and Afful beyond which she addresses claims of infidelity.
For most of the performance, Zoe Doyle and Vladimir Alexis – playing our duo of bureaucrats – and Sarah Afful, victim to an unnamed violent crime, are all seated around the central table. While the tension in this set-up is palpable, the table also becomes the focal point for almost-farcical bits of humour. As our characters enter the room, Doyle and Alexis are deeply concerned with making Afful feel comfortable for the ensuing conversation. What plays out are comedic back-and-forths about whether or not she would like some water (in a proper Ikea cup rather than the plastic ones atop the cooler), whether or not she would like to hang up her coat on the rack outside of the room, and a general hesitation to sit down until everyone is truly convinced that Afful does not wish to call someone to be present with her.
It is in these early, often one-way, conversations directed at Afful that the audience is introduced to the manner of speaking within green’s universe: dialogue that abruptly cuts off, leading to other fragmented thoughts. Spoken quickly, it is the perfect institutional intonation for our officials to imply a great deal of effort to accommodate the needs of their “client” without the inconvenience of genuine presence. Appreciation for this style only deepens throughout the play as Doyle and Alexis quickly weave their fragmented statements of concern and bureaucratic shorthand through each other’s.
Language flows more readily for Afful (a frequent Stratford Festival performer and winner of the Festival’s Artistic Directors Award) as she powerfully moves through all the dizzying emotions associated with her traumatic experience: heartbreak at the changes in her once cheerful children since the crime, anger at the incessant platitudes about “understanding” her situation,
and frustration with her interlocutors’ complicity with a system that increases her burden through cold, unfeeling “protocols.”
Her distress ultimately turns into stubborn resolve to choose a harsh fate for the perpetrator of her crime. Solidifying this choice, as we gradually discover, is the entire point of the group’s meeting. Spoiler: the title of the play tells you what her ultimate decision is.
Those looking for a neat resolve of the play’s heavy themes may leave disappointed. The questions arising throughout the play pointedly probe the purpose of retributive sentencing, the motives of a justice system that ignores the needs of victims, and the emptiness behind performances of empathy, particularly when entangled within unequal power dynamics. All remain hanging in the air during the final moment of the play which suggests the choice made by our victim will prove to be an unsatisfying one. It is the type of non-resolution that feels so familiar in the midst of #metoo and other movements springing up where the legal system has fallen short – a system where justice is perpetually sought, but never truly achieved.
An Obsidian Theatre Company production
Berkeley Street Theatre.
Until February 25
Purchase tickets online
By Kallee Lins
Kallee Lins left her hometown of Castlegar, BC, to continue her contemporary dance training in Montréal while studying political science and theatre at McGill University. Lins holds an MA in Performance Studies (York University) and works as the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Dancer Transition Resource Centre.
Read all Kallee Lins’s stories