Political Acts: Theatre Has a Tiny Audience Compared with the Media. but, Says Human Rights Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, It Still Plays a Vital Role in Debating Society's Big Issues

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The United States may be the richest nation on earth, but if you are on death row, ploughing your way through appeals, you have no constitutional right to a lawyer. In many states, you must either represent yourself or find someone who'll do it for free. America's condemned certainly need lawyers on their side. They also need theatre. This could not be emphasised more plainly than in Lorilei, a production that the human rights charity Reprieve is bringing to the Old Red Lion Theatre in London.


A central figure in the play is my client Ricky Langley, a deeply unpopular man in Louisiana. He is a paedophile. He was accused of molesting several children and, in February 1992, of murdering Jeremy, the six-year-old son of Lorilei Guillory. In 1994, Langley was sentenced to death. Nine years later, the courts ordered a new trial. By this time, Lorilei had lived with the horror of her son's murder for more than a decade. The prosecutor's promise that a death sentence would give her "closure" had proven hollow, so she did an extraordinary thing: she asked to meet Langley to help her to understand her loss. They spent three hours alone in a cell. By the end, Lorilei was convinced that the defence lawyers had been telling the truth: Langley was insane when he murdered Jeremy.

"Ricky," she said, "I'm going to fight for you." And fight she did. She insisted on testifying for the defence at trial, and instructed me on the only question she wanted to answer in court.

"Ms Guillory," I asked, "do you have an opinion as to whether Ricky Langley was mentally ill at the time he killed your child Jeremy?" "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do," she replied. "I feel like Ricky Langley has cried out for help many, many, many times. And for whatever reasons, his family, society and the system have failed him. I feel like he is sick. And even though, as I sit on this witness stand, I can hear my child's death cry, I, too, can hear Ricky Langley cry for help."

The death penalty exists because the world remains ignorant of the true story, or the real people, behind each case. Politicians and prospective jurors alike expound on the need for the noose, but when faced with all the facts, and the human reality, few are willing to dish out death. This proved true in Langley's case. However, the problem with Lorilei's extraordinary story, when first told in Courtroom H in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, was that the audience was limited to 12 jurors. These jurors did not take long to acquit Langley of capital murder and to find him guilty of a lesser charge. But it was not a lawyer who saved Langley; it was Lorilei. More people should hear her words, and theatregoers are about to get that opportunity.

In recent years, political theatre has veered towards verbatim pieces such as Guantanamo and The Exonerated, productions that put transcripts of human experience on the record. In an age dominated by the mass media, it is one of the best alternative forums in which to discuss important ideas. Political theatre, if it's good enough, is able to escape its ghetto and become simply "theatre". But theatre should still be a place where society's big issues are discussed.


The director Nicolas Kent and the Tricycle Theatre have been particularly active lately with plays about Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday, as well as the internment of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay. In this last production, I was mildly embarrassed to find David Annen playing me as an ill-dressed lawyer. Yet, rather more importantly, Guantanamo emphasised how political theatre can effectively rehumanise the dehumanised. …