Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
6 June 2019 -16 June 2019; 2hr, 15min with interval
There is no third wall in Joseph Houston's staging of The Exonerated in Hope Mill's atmospheric small theatre, but there are two fourth walls, one for each audience.
Houston and designer Jessica Staton have divided the auditorium into two entirely separate spaces and between each and the actors stands a high, chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. This is an inspired concept for Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's Off-Broadway hit, based on interviews they conducted in 2000 with a number of people who had served time on death row, some for as long as 20 years, before their innocence was recognised by the legal system.
The origin of the play, from interviews, is also very effectively shown through TV monitors (film-maker Grant Archer) which convey the talking heads of the sometime inmates as they tell their stories. These, often harrowing, tales use the genre of TV crime documentaries, which are then illustrated and pointed by the real-life actors in the fearsome enclosure behind. There are therefore two casts, five actors on video and five on stage, a split ensemble providing an interesting contrast between the naturalistic style of the video and the more gestural manner of the stage scenes.
The video passages are deeply absorbing and each actor's portrayal frequently moving. Nonetheless, so used are we now the varieties of reality TV that the difference between acting and non-acting is still clear - though since one of the play's concerns is with what is real and what is not, this may be a deliberate aspect of the work's artifice.
The interviews carry the main burden of the play, both in time and interest, with the staged episodes often little more than flashes. Although Aaron J Dootson's lighting and Ellyana Evans' sound design often combine to make these striking ,the stage material lacks some substance
As the programme tells us, since 1973, 165 people have been released from death row by the US courts. The silent question hovers over the whole work of how many innocent people have not been exonerated. Hope Mill has done a service by putting this material before us.