Courtroom dramas can be tricky things to accomplish on stage. In order to keep the audience’s interest, the case concerned must be serious enough, the defendant’s guilt or innocence must be hard to determine – and yet, if we do not feel sympathy for them despite their possible guilt, how are we as an audience ever going to engage with their plight?
Anatomy of a Murder, Elihu Winer’s play based on Robert Traver’s 1958 novel, piques the interest by starting from the premise that there is no doubt that the defendant, army Lieutenant Frederic Manion (George McFadyen) killed Barney Quill, the proprietor of the local inn.But Quill, we are told, had raped Manion’s wife that night. Immediately, our loyalties and a sense of natural justice start muddying the waters – and further murkiness is added as Manion and his fresh-faced lawyer Paul Biegler (Benedict Hastings) work out that Manion’s only defence against a charge of murder will be a plea of insanity.
Already, it’s a compelling tale, further enhanced by being based on a real-life trial – the novel was written under a pseudonym by John D Voelker, who was the defence lawyer in a 1952 case which he mirrored in his book. This being so, the number and type of roles for women in the original play was scarce, so For Short. Theatre’s production has, with permission, switched the genders of several witnesses – and, most notably, Biegler’s associate lawyer. Parnell McCarthy, an older lawyer whose alcoholism has kept him away from the courtroom, becomes Parnelle (Lauren Garnham) – a much younger woman for whom it is the societal norms of the day that keep her from leading the case.
The Biegler/McCarthy relationship is one of the more impressive elements of this production, thanks in the main to a great dynamic between Hastings and Garnham. The McCarthy role is reduced to that of a spectator during the actual courtroom scenes, but the pair’s scenes together bookend the whole play well.
A short opening act sets up both Biegler’s role and his interactions with Manion and his wife. While only three scenes long, the transitions between each are perhaps a little too abrupt, diverting the audience’s attention away from the start of the new scene. All that fades away, though, in the second act as the action switches to the courtroom scenes. We all know what to expect from such events, from numerous film and television depictions of the American legal process. It’s an inherently theatrical judicial format, milked for all its worth by prosecuting attorney Claude Dancer (Matt Jessup), and presided over by a fearsome but fair judge (Patrick Lannigan). A succession of witnesses fill out the story – Niamh Watson’s barmaid Alphonsa and Lucy Hagan-Walker as the lieutenant’s wife leading a number of strong performances.
Being staged in a real courtroom adds an element of veracity that most fringe productions could only dream of, and helps contribute to an evening of enjoyable theatre delivered by a great young cast.