Since 1973, 165 people have been released from death row, with evidence of their innocence. The Exonerated tells the true stories of six of these people, wrongfully sentenced for up to 22 years on death row.
The play is written by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, and is meticulously researched. Constructed from case files, interviews, letters, and transcripts, it ensures that the stories are told in the words of those exonerated. Hope Mill Theatre’s production combines documentary style film with conventional live theatre, to create an entirely unique experience that is as absorbing as bingeing on a Netflix box set.
Before the play begins, you are handed a ticket, denoting which side of the traverse stage you will be sat. Steel wire fencing, crowned with barbed wire, separates the audience from the action happening on stage. It also separates the two halves of the audience from each other. Jessica Staton‘s masterful stage design effectively creates distance.
The audience is constantly aware that they are witnesses to the crimes, trials, and prison sentences, that are unfolding onstage. We are on the outside, looking in. Superb direction from Hope Mill’s co-founder, Joseph Houston, ensures that both sides of the audience are equally addressed, and that nobody misses out. I believe his experience as Observer Director on the Royal Exchange Theatre’s West Side Story has a marked influence here.
A television hangs above the stage, with a Netflix style “Who’s Watching?” welcome screen. The action then switches seamlessly between the documentary style interviews shown on the television, and events on stage which re-enact the stories of the exonerated interviewees. The juxtaposition of live action and recorded film creates a compelling multimedia experience that grips the audience’s attention.
Although, after a while, you get a sore neck from watching the screen above the stage. Nonetheless, the stories told are completely riveting. The most engrossing play I have ever watched, I sat fixated and dumbfounded at the sheer injustice of these cases. Ironically, an American flag hangs on stage, a symbol of the American Constitution and justice. However, in The Exonerated, the flag is a pertinent reminder of corruption and the horrific miscarriages of justice endured by the six wrongfully imprisoned people.
The stories in The Exonerated raise an uncomfortable debate surrounding whether capital punishment is lawful. “We must look on it as putting a sick animal to sleep”. However, can you truly trust the justice system? These case studies expose prosecutorial misconduct, hidden evidence, altered testaments and shocking racial prejudice.
The phenomenal level of performance, from all actors, result in every character being entirely convincing. The five actors on stage deftly inhabit multiple roles, but the filmed actors are particularly impressive. Their performances render an unremitting sense of realism. It genuinely felt like I was watching an actual documentary.
Grant Archer‘s cinematography in the recorded interviews deserves credit, effectively alternating between medium shots and close ups, in an accurate documentary style. The filmed actors are unyielding under the intense scrutiny of Archer’s close ups, delivering magnificent performances, where each intricate mannerism is magnified in importance.
The Exonerated is a riveting fusion of documentary film and live theatre. Telling the extraordinary stories of six people wrongfully sentenced to death row, this is a powerful, hard hitting play that is both moving and thought provoking.