Writer: Conor Carroll
Director: Lucy Curtis
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Hope has always had such a good reputation, something that persists when life is at its most bleak but hope is also destructive, especially when the possibilities it affords do nothing but tease the suffering into feeling again. “It’s the hope that kills” Johnny explains after serving 50 years for a crime he didn’t commit in Conor Carroll’s powerful two-man show It is So Ordered currently in a 10-day run at the Pleasance Theatre.
It’s July 1964 and two teenage brothers, Johnny and Craig, fight over a girl at school while local boy Bobby looks on in awe. Soon one of their community is shot and his funeral sparks a rally in which a shopkeeper is murdered. Pressured by police, Bobby points the finger at Johnny who is given a death sentence. As the decades pass the two men live through a rapidly changing world but the injustice plagues them both.
Conor Carroll’s play is a vivid and intricately constructed piece of political theatre. While telling one story from two perspectives, Caroll manages to make pointed and insightful comments on the nature of racially motivated imprisonment, drawing clear parallels with the experience of slavery, the Harlem Race Riots and the modern day. The implication is clear, the people may have changed and equality laws enacted but the mechanics of intimidation, imprisonment and dehumanisation continue.
What makes Carroll’s writing so clever is how this message is so subtly woven into a frenetic tale of two young men who by accident find themselves on opposing sides of a miscarriage of justice. With just an hour to tell their story, it starts in a frenzy of testosterone and activity as the two actors bounce around the traverse stage narrating a schoolyard fight that rapidly leads into the riots. It’s punchy and urgent, told in the present tense to highlight the escalating tension and how deeply their lives are suffused with violence as attitude becomes a fight that becomes a gun-shot wound that becomes a full-on riot.
It takes a while to realise that the two men on stage are telling a slightly different story and don’t interact with one another, but that’s all part of the melee they create in the build-up to the crime. After this Carroll’s writing becomes more emotive, challenging the audience to understand the perspective of both men – one a blackmailed witness, the other a victim of circumstance – as the story moves from court to prison to decades of suffering. And it’s filled with memorable touches that connect it to a wider history, not just the interspersion of scenes of slaves singing songs of lament, but also like camp inmates during the Holocaust, prisoners were forced to clean the extermination chambers themselves knowing they would be next to use them, the stripping of their humanity complete.
Simon Mokhele’s Johnny is initially full of teenage swagger, enjoying his dominance at school and certain of a normal future. The anger and frustration that follows is particularly affecting and Mokhele successfully tempers this as his character ages, showing the hot-headed young man becoming a resigned pensioner who maintains a flicker of anger for his brother’s dismissal but finds compassion for the man who put him in jail.
As Bobby, Faaiz Mbelizi takes an opposite route, a shy young man, initially excited by the violence he witnesses but soon terrified and confused by where it leads him. Protective of his family, he’s then forced to live regretfully with his guilt which Mbelizi makes all-consuming and ultimately imprisoning for Bobby.
It Is So Ordered has some of the righteous anger of 12 Angry Men about the nature of justice which make it a thought-provoking evening. While extracts from a Civil Rights Act speech emphasise the play’s political themes, this minimally-staged production also reminds us of the power of a great story; elaborate sets, technology and pizzazz are all very well, but sometimes all you need is two men and a piece of chalk.
Runs until 16 April 2017 | Image: Tim Hall