Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre presents Reginald Rose’s classic legal procedural play Twelve Angry Men
The presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is the backbone of our criminal justice system. It’s also the basis of Reginald Rose’s classic legal procedural drama Twelve Angry Men. Written in the 1950s, the play is still incredibly relevant today in the digital age when the pervasiveness of digital and social media often allows the mob to swiftly act as judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion.
Reginald Rose’s classic script has been appropriated, adapted and spoofed so often that the lone dissenting juror has become a well-worn trope in legal fiction. I hadn’t actually seen the play before or the famous 1957 film adaptation starring Henry Fonda but I instantly recognized the story from the wealth of cultural references that it inspired.
What stood out most to me about Soulpepper’s Twelve Angry Men is the clever production design. Set designer Yannick Lariveé’s jury room set bisects the auditorium and the audience is seated on opposing sides of the stage. This design direction results in a confined performance space reminiscent of a terrarium or an animal habitat at a zoo. It’s barely big enough to accommodate the twelve jurors and it effectively conveys the sense of cramped discomfort the characters feel.
Lariveé also designed the period-accurate costumes which in this case means outfitting the twelve men in dress pants pulled up above their belly buttons.
Alan Dilworth’s direction includes stylistic touches that feel vaguely Hitchcockian. He places an emphasis on the underlying tension and sense of unease in the self-contained universe of the jury room. The brassy musical cues that sound like something Bernard Herrmann would compose for the score of a Hitchcock movie, and the practical rain effects in the second act are a nice touch that helps accentuate the atmosphere of general malaise.
As the title implies, Twelve Angry Men is an ensemble piece and for the most part I felt the men of the Soulpepper ensemble were pretty evenly matched throughout, although I did think that there were some significant problems at the start of the play. The energy level started out low and lines were delivered in a way that felt stiff and unnatural.
It took a while for the ensemble to settle in to the show but when the actors hit their stride about ten minutes in, the play instantly became engaging and built to the point where it was scintillating by intermission.
Standout performances include Joseph Ziegler as the combative Juror #3; Ziegler tempers the character’s cantankerous anger with a humanizing touch of pathos, and Stuart Hughes who gives an understated but effective performance as the lone dissenter, Juror #8.
With Twelve Angry Men, Soulpepper has created a fascinating and thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre. See it while you can.
- Twelve Angry Men is playing through July 19 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $23 – $74 (plus service charge);
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of Derek Boyes, Robert Nasmith, Joseph Ziegler, Tim Campbell, Stuart Hughes and Byron Abalos by Cylla von Tiedemann.