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Grid Iron, Ben Harrison and Dr Jenny Scott - Jury Play

There's anything but silence in court in the North Edinburgh rehearsal room where Grid Iron theatre company are pulling together their latest production. In preparing for Jury Play, the renowned site-specific auteurs' new play by Grid Iron artistic director Ben Harrison and legal academic Dr Jenny Scott, the company are re-creating the everyday spectacle of a jury trial through the point of view of the jury itself.

These fifteen ordinary men and women selected at random to pass judgement in High Court criminal trials may in one sense be a symbol of democracy. As they sit there in silence while evidence is put before them through witnesses for both the defence and the prosecution, they might have altogether different things on their minds. In Jury Play, this is revealed through a series of internal monologues that lay bare a form of truth not necessarily heard in the witness box, and which makes for some lively cross-talk beyond it.

“The way that a trial is delivered in court is a fragmented situation,” says Scott, “so what people do in those situations, not just in a trial, but in general, is to default to what they understand and fill in the gaps. There's loads of research that says, oh, we've got a jury here, and they're defaulting to schemata, and the story they've made up is entirely different to the one they're being told. So those inner monologues are capturing that, and are gently dislodging the system.”

For their research for Jury Play, Harrison and Scott made frequent visits to the High Court, where they watched from the public gallery as what turned out to be a major fifty-two day trial unfolded in draining circumstances.

“Even after the first half hour,” says Harrison. “There's no natural light, there's a weird humming sound, there's static from the carpet, the lawyers don't speak up, sometimes they speak in Latin....We saw the jury in week one when they were all quite keen, taking notes. Then we saw them in week three, where they were beginning to fade away. By week seven, cabin fever had really set in.”

Unlike most of Grid Iron's endeavours, which have been performed in customised off-site locations, Jury Play will take place in a theatre.

“I think what was attractive for us is that it had such a strong sense of place,” says Harrison. “Originally we'd conceived it as a site-based production, but we fairly swiftly realised that the High Court was not going to allow us to start moving furniture around. We got a little bit further with the Sheriff Court, and were asked some quite searching questions about the content of the play. Then we thought, well, actually, we're shooting ourselves in the foot here. We're better just to do it in a theatre, where we've got control over what we do, can move things around, and can be playful with it.”

Part of this will see volunteers from the audience co-opted and sworn in to become part of the jury.

For those old enough, this dramatic initiative may sound a tad akin to an episode of Crown Court, Granada TV's 1970s daytime drama series produced in response to the change in England and Wales from Assize courts and Quarter sessions to the Crown Court system. With each 'trial' broadcast over a week, the programme similarly co-opted members of the public to become the jury. Harrison and Scott are aware of the potential comparison, as should be seen in aspects of Jury Play itself.

When asked what role their own voluntary jury will play in terms of doling out fictional justice onstage, and Harrison and Scott clam up. It's as if, like some of the witnesses in their play, they don't wish to incriminate themselves lest any potential audience be misled in terms of what they can expect from Jury Play.

“I think we can say that the jury are allowed to have a more active roll at a later point,” is all Harrison will reveal.

The roots of Jury Play stem from Scott's research for her PhD over the last decade, in which she called into question the presumption of juror participation and criminal trial. While such a challenge to established views of the legal system was considered cutting edge in academic terms, Scott's desire to move beyond the academic community and make her work accessible to everybody led directly to working on the play with Harrison and Grid Iron.

Scott first worked with the company as a consultant on their look at life and death in What Remains. Her artistic links go back further, however, and prior to studying law at the University of Glasgow, she was a clarinettist, and studied at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow. Scott was also one of the co-founders of Grid Iron's contemporaries, Theatre Cryptic.

“I know I've worked in the arts,” Scott says, “but apart from it being incredibly exciting doing this, it's really humbling to have the opportunity to do Jury Play. My work is inter-disciplinary, but this is incredible. Jury research, in the history of jury research, has never been communicated like this.”

As Harrison points out, Jury Play is “posing quite a simple question, really. What if the system could be different? The system has been entrusted by tradition for centuries of legal practice, and everything is based on precedent. This is the way it's always been done, but why is it still done like that when society has changed so radically over the last twenty years? Why do the jury sit over there? Why is the witness all the way over there? Why is the judge elevated? What signal does that give out? Why is there a perspex screen between the public gallery and the accused? It's really just asking those questions to see if there's not another way of doing things.”

Scott goes further.

“I think the other thing that we're trying to achieve in Jury Play is that, in terms of jury research, the government has released funding for that, and that will be academic research that will result in written documents, but juries affect everybody, whether you're a witness, you're the accused or a juror. When you live in an adversarial trial system, which this is, in a democracy, juries affect everybody. Whether that's subliminally or overtly, it doesn't really matter, but the image of a jury is something that is synonymous with a democratic society.

“I'm very keen, and have always been very keen, to open up that academic dialogue to the general public. Through the medium of theatre, and theatre like this, if we can engage one more person in the public in an actual dialogue about the jury that's not a populist version that Silk or CSI portrays, then we'll have gone some way to opening things up for a debate that's never been had with the general public before.”

As Harrison says, “We don't want to be presumptuous and say we've solved the complex problems of British justice in ninety minutes, because we're not attempting to do that. We're simply posing the question, and hopefully opening this thing up for debate.”

Jury Play, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 3-7.
www.traverse.co.uk
www.gridiron.org.uk

The Herald, October 3rd 2017

ends

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