Edith was unlike any other play I’d seen. The crowd was the jury, but not in an intense audience participation way. From making you stand in the opening few minutes, ‘All rise’, it became the audience’s responsibility to listen to the evidence and come to their own conclusion of the case.
The concept of the play was simple. It used court transcripts of the trial of Edith Thompson, one of the last women to be executed in the UK in 1922. She was accused of inciting murder, and the main evidence was her love letters. The play posed the question, would the same verdict be found 100 years on?
Edith at times tried a little too hard to set the story in a modern context, adding modern music – Edith and her husband’s first meeting was whilst dancing the macarena. But the story really shone when it made use of the real court transcripts, bringing the audience into the arguments of the prosecution and defence, and highlighting the leading comments from the judge.
Rather than an interval, throughout the play there were three minute ‘recesses’, where the jury (audience) discussed amongst themselves. The discussion wasn’t directed, the cast sat around the edge of the stage with headphones on, but everyone would excitedly turn to the person next to them ‘So do you think she did it?’.
The concept worked really well in the Lowry’s small studio theatre, and the recesses accompanied the twist and turns of the play, resulting in discussions of power dynamics and free will, whether love letters are admissible evidence, and constant debates of her guilt or not. I’ve always wanted to do jury duty, but Edith revealed the difficult task of the jury, taking in so much seemingly conflicting information and coming to a decision which in this case resulted in the taking of someone’s life.
The play’s start was delayed by almost 40 minutes due to a problem with the screens, luckily they managed to fix it as the screens were integral to the show. Illustrations appeared on the screens to indicate changes in location, and headings appeared to indicate who had taken to the stand. Evidence was drawn on the screens, and videos of the witness statements and letters were shown.
The screens were used cleverly to aid the audience’s understanding of the case, with maps and evidence, as well as indications of who was speaking when the actors were multi-roling. More powerfully, the video footage was used to draw attention to the importance of presentation – snippets from the love letters read sensually or aggressively, and a variety of media commentators constantly changing their opinions on the case.
The multi-roling was largely effective, with a small cast of 5, but at times, particularly Peyvand Sadeghian’s portrayal of the policeman appeared over-acted in order to distinguish him from her main role of Freddy Bywaters. The prosecution, Rose-Marie Christian, was particularly strong in her performance, indicating how the jury came to the conclusion they did in 1922, and the power of the prosecution even in a modern day context.
The decision to have a largely female cast portraying the story of Edith Thompson, a story which was dominated by the understanding and perspectives of men (with just one female juror) was dually effective: bringing the story into the modern day and highlighting the underlying misogyny present in the arguments of the prosecution and the defence, as well as the constant discussions of her appearance in court from the media.
In the confines of a studio theatre with a cast of just five, Edith was one of the most cleverly structured and thought-provoking plays I’ve seen. I was so enraptured in the case and the decision at hand, that the stage set and even the acting felt secondary to the story.
The story of Edith Thompson is a remarkable one, and not one I’d ever heard before. So whilst the play could have potentially explored the petition of over a million people after her guilty verdict, it’s inspired me to learn more about Edith Thompson, and continue telling her story 100 years later.
Edith is on until February 4 at The Lowry. Get tickets now.
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