Friday, October 30, 2015

'The State vs. John Hayes' at the King's Head Theatre, 29th October 2015

Death row is an alien concept in Britain. We're familiar with its rhythms and rituals from cinema and television: the last meal, the visit from the priest, the long walk to the execution chamber and finally that big final moment. It's so monstrous that it's almost surreal, that their government has the right to put a human being down like an animal. 

The State vs. John Hayes takes us inside this process, inside a cell and inside the mind of a corpse-to-be. She is Elyese Dukie (Lucy Roslyn): double murderer, media monster, seductress and apparent sociopath. We're privy to her final confession and thoughts - her last chance to say who she really is.

This is the epitome of a performance-centred character piece. With no need for complex staging or razzle-dazzle, all eyes are locked on to writer/performer Roslyn. From minute one you're drawn into Dukie's magnetic grip via her precise language and calculated physicality.

Elyese's clipped Southern tones display her tight personal control and fierce intelligence: lapsing into clever little word games almost out of habit, playing up the sensationalism of her situation and taking a distinctly sadistic pleasure in toying with audience expectations. Throughout the piece Roslyn scans the audience for eye contact, occasionally seeking emotional support but more often picking someone to haughtily bombard with accusations - taking offence at the idea that we could ever truly 'know' her.

Complementing this is a rock-solid grip on the character's physicality. Completely androgynous, Roslyn never lets us rest on firm ground when trying to pin her down to one gender or the other. Often she's a scary social chameleon; especially when she lapses into 'playing' another woman during her monologue. As if shuffling a deck of cards she slides into stereotyped femininity; voice, mannerisms and personality all turning on a dime to eerie effect. 

We're never completely comfortable in Elyese's presence; just as we think we've worked her out she throws out something new that changes everything. As we reach the end of the play this process intensifies, her cool exterior finally cracking with frustration. Underneath all the mind-games, the tortured past and playful eroticism lies someone that, simply, is scared to die.

Throughout, the piece maintains a firm control of emotional tone; knowing precisely where and when to ramp things up and down, ensuring that we know what Elyese is feeling. Where there's less control is in the actual narrative. To some extent we must play detective with her statements, silently piecing together the jigsaw of her social network, history and relationships. 

Doing is proves to be quite tricky. Elyese is one hell of a complicated character: an androgynous bisexual, (possibly) split-personality sociopath with a knotted past that involves at least one child. This dips a little bit into sensationalistic Jerry Springer territory and thus requires the audience to suspend their disbelief a tiny bit. And that's if you can keep up: the fractured narrative and delivery - you've got to be attentive and alert to piece this together.

I think I got everything, though on leaving I was still a tiny bit unsure of the precise ins and outs of Elyese's tale. But if I have to choose between narrative clarity with emotional resonance I'll pick the latter every time. 

Watching this is like spending an hour in a lion's cage, at times you can almost smell the disinfectant and feel the dread of death row...


The State vs John Hayes is at the King's Head Theatre until 22 November. Tickets here.

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