Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Richard Vergette: Exploring American Justice

By | Published on Tuesday 15 January 2013


This week, London’s Arts Theatre hosts the press night for a new production of acclaimed thriller ‘American Justice’, which is, highly topically and rather relevantly, set against the backdrop of the Obama administration.

In the lead role is Ryan Gage, who is also due to appear in instalments two and three of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. Ahead of the show, we put some questions to playwright Richard Vergette.

CM: American Justice is described as a “searing thriller about guilt and redemption”, but can you tell us a little more about the play?
RV: The play’s premise is that Daniels, a newly elected Congressman in the first Obama administration, suffers the unspeakable tragedy of his daughter being murdered. Although the prisoner (Fenton) is sentenced to death, the Congressman, in an apparent act of forgiveness, appeals for clemency to the state Governor, but on the strict understanding that he be allowed to educate Fenton. The play is set in the state penitentiary and shows how the relationship between the prisoner and the Congressman grows over 8 years. Each of the three scenes is set in the aftermath of a US Presidential election: 2008, 2012 and 2016

CM: Given that it’s set during an Obama administration, has the US president’s recent election to a second term increased its current relevance?
RV: Put it this way, the election result was a considerable relief for all kinds of reasons! If Obama had lost I would have had some hasty re-writes to complete.

One of the features of the play, I believe, is that it scrutinises how political idealism can – and in most cases does – become reduced to political pragmatism. The Congressman becomes preoccupied with the progress of his own career and his actions often seem to reflect personal ambition rather than a genuine desire to change the world. In a sense I think we’ve seen that with Obama. He was elected in 2008 on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism but was re-elected only with a sense of relief that “thank God we didn’t get Romney”. Almost inevitably there has been something of a sense of let down and “Yes we Can” has become a little bit “Well we would if we could but it’s awfully difficult”.

Although I think the play is probably more human than political (accepting the inextricable link between the two) it has something to say about the machinery of government and party politics.

CM: The play has already won acclaim from UK critics and audiences, but the the upcoming production is described as a “new version”. What changes can those already familiar with the play expect?
RV: The principal difference is the introduction of a third character: the prison Warden. At first I was unsure about this as I rather liked the balance and the dialectic that the two characters gave the play. However, the inclusion of Warden Stevens (brilliantly played by David Schaal) has added a dimension to the piece that the previous version lacked. In many ways the old version didn’t really fully explore the context of the prison. It was very much about the central characters in a room and their relationship. I liked this, because of the intensity and simplicity of it, but now it’s also about Fenton’s relationship with his environment and a greater exploration of that environment. Stevens’ utter hostility to Daniels’ aims and his own fervent religious faith have also served to broaden the social context of the play.

CM: How involved have you been with this production of the play? What’s it like handing over your work for someone else to interpret?
RV: I get asked that a lot and I’m actually quite cool about it. There are three amazing girls and three amazing boys who I’ve worked with on this. The girls are Lisa Forell (Dramaturg and Director), Gabby Vautier (Producer) and Louise Chantal (Producer). Working with them has been a joy, and I’ve been consulted every step of the way. I’ve attended rehearsals and have felt very involved. I never felt a sense of ‘handing over’ but more a sense of all of the others joining the party and that was a great feeling. The three amazing boys are Ryan Gage (Fenton), David Schaal (Stevens) and Peter Tate (Daniels and co-producer). I’ve really enjoyed being able to discuss with them the interpretation of their characters as well as Lisa’s ideas for the production.

CM: What made you decide to write about this subject? Was it a difficult topic to tackle? 
RV: I don’t remember a single flash of inspiration as such. I’m something of an election junky. An election – whether a US or British General Election – is for me a bit like the World Cup is to a normal man! Politics fascinates me, as do politicians; their motives and their actions. But the play is as much about education as it is anything else. I’ve been a teacher for many years and I’ve often questioned the processes and substance of education. Daniels appears to make this extraordinary gesture of generosity towards Fenton, but precisely how will Fenton benefit?

Education is always in the hands of politicians who pursue political agendas in their identification of education policy. This is particularly apparent now when we have a monster like Gove as Education Secretary, attempting to appeal to the electorate’s baser and more reactionary instincts. It’s a clear case of attempting to impose a narrow set of values on students as defined by a right wing elite – as evidenced by the EBacc which specifically and deliberately excludes any study of the arts. In the play, although Daniels is from the liberal wing of the Democrat party, his desire to impose his values is no less a part of his motivation.

For this version I was also very fortunate to meet and talk to Clive Stafford Smith, the Director of Reprieve. Clive made a career from defending capital offenders and his insight into the US Justice system has proved invaluable. I’m happy to say that he’s written the programme note and will be taking part in a talk back on 28 January.

CM: What hopes do you have for the play following its run at The Arts Theatre? Has it ever been staged in the US?
RV: I would absolutely love to have the play performed in the US. And whilst it would be wonderful to get it on ‘off -Broadway’ in New York, I would really love for it to be performed in a southern state penitentiary!! Currently we are exploring the possibility of the play being produced in France (also directed by Lisa) and we have had inquiries from a Mexican Company who would like to produce the play in Mexico City. Hopefully, therefore, 2013 could see Spanish and French translations of the play.

CM: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
RV: Yes, I’m hard at work on ‘Gibraltar’ which is going into the Arcola Studio at the end of March. This explores the press and media response to the shooting of the three IRA terrorists by the SAS on Gibraltar in March 1988. It’s been a very busy start to the new year!

‘American Justice’ runs at The Arts Theatre until 29 Jan.

LINKS: | |