Review: 12 Angry Women at the Oxford Union

C**t. I feel my toes curl at the sheer aggressiveness of those four letters. It is one of those insults that when spoken to a woman can feel more intensely jarring than when spoken to a man; but why? The rehearsed reading of 12 Angry Women is a linguistic experiment: a jury of 12 women deliberate the verdict of a boy charged with the murder of his own father. But the participants amount to more than a dozen as the audience joins them in scrutinising the evidence. Is the boy guilty? Are we prejudiced in our judgement? The unique property of this production is that these questions go beyond that fourth wall: as one of the jurors state in the script “What are we cross-examining?”

The decision to morph the male characters of Reginald Rose’s film 12 Angry Men into women is one that spotlights the contentious topic of gender and language. Most often passages with threats of physical violence and swearing caused schizoid reactions in the audience members, a discomfort that erupted in wild laughter or an awkward shuffling in your seat. Certain insults felt more exclusively ‘female orientated’ than others: ‘the little skinny one’ ‘the bitch’ were both expressions that imagining 12 grown American men from the 1950s call each other felt both incongruous and unlikely.

The aesthetic depiction of ‘the woman’ is also one that the reading seemed to challenge. Just as jurors evaluate the visual evidence, the audience was presented with a kaleidoscope of personalities and mannerisms that exacerbated the women as ‘types’: from the poised, tight-lipped woman in a work suit and glasses to the slouching woman in a shirt, clunky boots and jeans. At first, I considered the character that seemed to dominate most of the speech a little clichéd and stereotypical, with a bright pink jumper, sweet, stuttering voice that seemed to evoke that of a primary school teacher. With this as the initially most dominant speaker, I thought it was obvious that the male/female dichotomy created by the script would be definitely emphasised as she embodied a very typically female stereotype. I was a little disappointed. But as the reading wore on and the different characters unravelled I was soon enraptured by the layers that it introduced: a cultural layer, with the questioned credibility of a woman with a French accent, but also a further aesthetic one, as the combination of a strong, cockney accent and slouching physicality seemed to inexplicably contrast with the prim hair and make-up of one of the characters. I was judging everything presented to me, and was made to consciously question this. My own prejudices were put on trial.

Although given the nature of the performance the line-running and cues weren’t spotless, it wasn’t an aspect worth focusing on. The acting was sincere and engaging, and carried a sense of determination in drawing the audience into the experiment. In the Q&A session following the production, points were raised regarding the difficulty in acting as women that felt more masculine in their physicality than others, and what would it have changed had the crime been that of the a boy stabbing his own mother. With these in mind, I came away from the production befuddled yet paradoxically enlightened, with the words ‘prejudice obscures the truth’ ringing in my ears.


PHOTO/12 Angry Women