King’s Head Theatre – until 22 November 2015
Guest Review by Liz Dyer
As subject matter goes, you don’t get a lot darker than death row (especially when the story’s set in Texas). In Epsilon Productions’ The State vs John Hayes, a woman convicted of murdering her husband and lover sits alone in her cell, the night before the trip to court that will decide her ultimate fate. But is she really alone? Can we believe a word she says? Elyese Dukie’s story is anything but straightforward, and over the next hour she takes the opportunity to share that story with the audience, in an intimate soliloquy that’s both captivating and deeply unsettling.
Lucy Roslyn, who wrote and stars in the play, is mesmerising as the condemned prisoner. This is an actor who not only knows the character inside out, but also understands how to work an audience, in the same way that Elyese clearly knows how to manipulate those around her (even as the play opens, she’s practising her ‘court face’). Roslyn has no qualms about putting us on the spot, and responds to our reactions in an easy, natural way that makes the performance feel totally fresh, and not like a part that she’s already played over 90 times around the country, before bringing it to London.
The play offers a rare opportunity to see inside the mind of a killer; though Elyese is fictional, the play was written based on extensive research into real-life murders, and in consultation with a team of psychologists. Director Jemma Gross’ production is simply staged, with no distractions; it’s all about the character (or should that be characters…?). And without the freedom to move beyond the confines of her cell, Elyese wields the only remaining weapon at her disposal: her words. She’s consistently unpredictable – laughing one minute and smashing up her cell the next – and since we only get to meet the other characters in the story through her descriptions and impersonations of them, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell if she’s really cast us in the role of her confessors, or if we’re just being taken for a ride.
This is particularly true when it comes to John Hayes, the male alter ego who Elyese blames for the murders. There’s a hint that she may have made him up at the time – but now, seven years later, he seems to be all too real, and causing Elyese what appears to be genuine physical pain. Is she schizophrenic? Has she started believing her own fantasy? Or is John Hayes simply a convenient means for her to live a different life, without taking any responsibility? The fact that these questions remain unanswered is a bit frustrating, but perhaps in a situation such as this, it’s appropriate that we’re left to make up our own minds – just as we would if we were on the jury.
The State vs John Hayes is a fascinating insight into the psychology of a murderer, with a stunning solo performance from Lucy Roslyn. It’s not an easy watch, but then a psychological thriller about death row was never going to be. Raising some hard questions about justice, gender and mental illness, this is a powerful and well-staged production that needs to be seen – possibly more than once.