The Listening Room was one of the most unique plays to emerge this year. The brainchild of Harriet Madley, it explores the controversial practise of restorative justice. Here, the victims and perpetrators of a crime are brought together in an attempt to understand one another and provide mutual closure. Considered abstractly, it’s a beautiful idea; for many, the reality can be hard to stomach. Critics question what sort of reassurance a parent could gain from a man who murdered their child, or whether such a murderer in entitled to comfort or closure himself. While the practise entails little more than open conversation, it has proven enormously divisive and has gained some passionate opponents.
Yet the play elicits empathy. At the start of each performance, the actors are allocated an envelope by a member of the audience which dictates the character they’ll be playing for that show. It’s an interesting piece of stagecraft with practical benefits. Each performance feels fresh; rather than settling into a role, the actors are constantly pushed beyond their comfort zone, alternately playing men and women, victims and perpetrators across nights. This process of blind casting is also deeply unsettling, somehow suggestive of life’s arbitrariness and interchangeability. While it’s comforting to moralise and think of criminality in terms of bad decisions, willingly made or innate, character defects, the truth may be more random: these people are simply playing out the cards they’ve been dealt. As the play delves into shocking accounts of murder and GBA, our instincts to judge and condemn are tempered by this sense of randomness and bad luck.
The play is based solely on verbatim testimony. Harriet spent over a year researching and interviewing participants of restorative justice then created a script comprised entirely of their own words. Many of those interviewed maintain an active interest in the show, routinely checking in and watching performances as different actors interpret their stories. It’s unusual for experimental theatre to draw such a diverse crowd; as well as theatre lovers and veteran playwrights ( Trevor Nunn, Alecky Blythe and Philip Ridley were all in attendance for early performances) the audience contains those touched by crime, those seeking to make sense of traumas they’ve endured, or inflicted or both.
Of course, The Listening Room is a gruelling experience, exploring the outer extremes of violence as well as compassion. It offers no easy conclusion or glib catharsis, but rather leaves behind a series of open questions. After a sell-out run at The Old Red Lion Theatre, the script has been revamped and transferred to Theatre Royal Stratford East. Sadiq Khan is being given a private performance and there’s talk of an ambitious tour next year, which would see the play performed in theatres across the country as well as broadcast across prison radio. I caught up with Harriet to discuss the show
What inspired you to explore restorative justice?
I found the idea of a process that empowers both victims and offenders to tell their stories very interesting, and I was curious to find out whether it ‘worked’: the idea that a face to face meeting could be an effective way of redressing the impact of a crime seemed to me to be a source of real hope. Meeting your victim – or perpetrator – struck me as something that would require a considerable amount of nerve on both sides, and I was interested to speak to people who had made the decision to do it. It immediately jumped out to me as something that would work well in a theatre environment as well, given the central theme of storytelling and listening as a potentially transformative event. I think theatre is one of the few environments left that allows us to sit in a room without distraction and really listen to each other, so it felt like a fitting context for these stories to be told in.
What were some of your ambitions behind the show? What sort of impact were you hoping to make?
I wanted to look at the impact of crime from intimate personal perspectives. We’re used to the way crimes are sensationalized in the media or chronicled from more detached perspectives in detective series’, but I was interested in speaking to ordinary people who had lived through these experiences… I find that once you get testimony from the eye of the storm, people say unexpected things. I was moved by the humanity of the people at the centre of these stories and I think their testimonies provide a valuable counterpoint to the presumption that human beings are vindictive creatures. I wanted to present the audience with challenging perspectives on forgiveness – why we do it, in what circumstances we might be able to do it – and to challenge people to re-evaluate their ideas of what we might be capable of when we have the clarity and courage to let some of our defences down.
What have been some of the challenges and rewards of working with verbatim testimony?
You get wonderful idiosyncratic language and complex, layered, surprising characters for free. That’s why I always try to work in this way. The challenges are to ensure you’re representing stories accurately and faithfully whilst still creating a dynamic piece of drama. Occasionally you have to manipulate things slightly, and I often found myself having to interrogate whether this was possible without straying from the essence of the truth of the story.
Many of the people who were involved in the crimes regularly attend the show, how does this impact the performance?
It makes it quite surreal, and definitely accelerates the stakes of the show. The production aims to make it entirely transparent that these are real people – actors hold up a photograph of them at the beginning of the show and listen to the real voices through headphones throughout – and I think the knowledge that these are real stories changes the way people respond to it. It’s quite humbling having people come down to watch it and always makes for a more emotionally charged show because the actors – and, I would imagine, the audience – are aware of the reality of the story on an even more immediate level.
Have there been any unexpected responses to the show?
Responses are always emotional, but they vary – sometimes people come out inspired, uplifted and fired up to discuss restorative justice; sometimes people come out heartbroken and struggling to speak. I think this depends on the delivery, and whether it’s the lifelong impact of the crimes or the transformative impact of the meetings that lands strongest on the night. The play is definitely about both.
A few audience members have come out angry that the perpetrators’ actions weren’t more fully explained – they suggested that if their childhoods were gone into in more depth, we would let them off the hook for what they’ve done. I wasn’t interested in making broad liberal statements or apologizing for perpetrators of violence – these are people who have taken responsibility for their actions themselves; they don’t need me to do so for them.
How has the play developed since its transfer?
My voice (as the interviewer) has been removed at the beginning, as have the questions which used to break up the sections – the play is now introduced through the real voices of the contributors instead. This felt more immediate – the director (Max Barton) and I wanted the audience to feel they had a direct relationship with the people telling the story. The reality is, also, that I said very little in these interviews – all the interviewees are very much storytellers who took charge of their own narratives.
We’ve also broken up the interweaving of the narratives at the point of the meetings themselves, so that each meeting feels like a pivotal, standalone event. These meetings form the crux of each of the stories and we wanted to give them the space they deserved. I’ve also followed up with contributors and added new material – I image the production will continue to develop, given that these stories are constantly unfolding and developing.
The Listening Room will be performed at a criminal justice convention at The National Theatre this November and the team are currently creating a radio adaptation with The Prison Radio Association for broadcast in prisons and nationwide at the end of the year.
Written by Sean Gilbert