The Listening Room at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
USING creative stage devices to engage, enthral and challenge the audience, Harriet Madeley’s The Listening Room is a theatrical gem.
It’s a moving verbatim account of real-life events, the kind normally conveyed only, if at all, through journalese or dry court reports. Penetrating the minds of five people whose lives have been shattered by acts of violence, it charts meetings between perpetrators and victims with astonishing results. We listen in rapt silence, not only because these are real cases and the words authentic but because such meetings are rare and the chance to hear them almost unknown.
The drama begins when audience members arbitrarily assign roles to five waiting actors, who instantly adopt a new persona and don headphones through which they hear lines that they then repeat.
Lit only when speaking, each cast member enters the role with expert skill, rendering their physical suitability, or not, irrelevant.
At the performance I saw, Ryan Gerald plays Vi Donovan with absolute conviction. She and her husband Ray have lost their only son, murdered on the streets, and the father’s testimony is deeply moving.
The remaining cast (Mary Knightley, Cathy Tyson, Neran Persaud and Madeley herself) equally convince and draw us in, rising from their seats only to graffiti the walls with imprints of their hands and face, as if no other outward expression is open to them.
What we witness is “restorative justice” in action, where aggressors and victims work together to find resolution and forgiveness. These are people who normally have no voice.
The perpetrators, mostly teenagers, hail from places of deprivation where schools are prisons, drugs flow freely, violence is a constant threat and no-one cares. One of the murders, we are told, earns only a second of coverage on a national news programme otherwise drowning in stories from Britain’s Got Talent and the vagaries of sport.
Max Barton’s innovative production aims not only to share the unheard with us but to open our minds to positive reparation. While it’s true that the dead can’t be revitalised and traumatic memories remain forever, unless we for once place criminals and victims centre stage and let them talk and understand one another, there can be no progress.
The same, the play points out, can be said of warring governments.