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Theatre Review: The State vs John Hayes (King’s Head Theatre, London)

state vs john hayes Not so straight shooter. Lucy Roslyn in 'The State vs John Hayes'. Photograph: Courtesy of Jemma Gross.
state vs john hayes

Not so straight shooter. Lucy Roslyn in ‘The State vs John Hayes’. Photograph: Courtesy of Jemma Gross.

In A Nutshell

Although difficult, The State vs John Hayes finds a dark reality that is dangerous and thrilling, helmed by a complicated but arresting character.

Overview

Elyese Dukie is in her cell. Tomorrow she goes to court for the last time before her execution for a double homicide. This is her last chance to tell someone about her situation: the John Hayes is a part of who she is, and he’s just as complicit as she is.

Writing

Lucy Roslyn has created Elyese Dukie/John Hayes from scratch as a solo piece of performance based on real life research into death row inmates. In doing so Roslyn has managed to really get deep below the skin in order to create the character. The very nature of The State vs John Hayes’ creation means that the narrative was always going to be very character driven, but what Roslyn has done is made The State vs John Hayes paced and structured by the character themselves.

What this means is that The State v John Hayes doesn’t have an obvious theatrical/narrative structure. What Rosyln does is give their character certain checkpoints along the way, but how they reach those is completely up to the organic development of the character. Any exposition is often dense, confusing, and not in a linear fashion, and often narrative trajectories halt and/or darts away on a tangent. Whilst this on the surface sounds like bad writing, for The State vs John Hayes it absolutely isn’t. Why? Because Roslyn’s character has severe schizophrenia, and this is how they tell their tale.

This technique of a completely character-driven piece does make The State vs John Hayes a hard piece of theatre to sit through and get your head around, especially compounding this with already heavy subject matters. But even if it’s narratively splintered, the effect of relinquishing all control of the show over to the character is absolutely gripping. Elyese/John invites you into their world from the very first word, coerced in by their charm, dark humour, and tilted points of view regarding life, love, and murder. Even if you’re left slightly baffled at points and end up be more unsure about who Elyese/John is at the end that at the start, you’re reeled into the intense epicentre of a character on the fringes of society, their mind, and their identity. The State vs John Hayes places you in an inescapable arm-lock with your nose firmly squished against the glass box of Elyese/John’s cell; you cannot draw yourself away no matter how uncomfortable or discombobulating their tale is. You’re in for the long run: narrative bumps and all.

Roslyn’s character is completely believable and their portrayal of schizophrenia here is not sensational or cliche, feeling incredibly complete and real. You actually get a personal sense of Elyese/John as a character(s), and, despite their dangerous nature, is rather likeable, even if you do end up holding them at arms length due to their nefarious unpredictability. Then, through imitating themselves and those around them there’s a morbid yet surprisingly truthful philosophy that is buried beneath and tempered by the multiple characters they go through. In The State vs John Hayes are some provocative takes and questions about sexuality and gender, and how these are shaped by experiences and people. Most dangerously is the big question as to whether how much of Elyese/John is down to severe mental health or that they’re unknowingly trans: their identity disfigured or triggered by the demands made of those around them. Regardless, The State vs John Hayes is an intense and troubling hour, but 60 minutes where you feel you’ve been struck right in the face by a blistering piece of theatre.

state vs john hayes

Ribbons of memory. Lucy Roslyn in ‘The State vs John Hayes.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Jemma Gross.

Direction & Production

Director Jemma Gross’ use of space here is key. Everything about The State vs John Hayes is contained in a cell, marked on the floor by a couple of tiles. Even though Gross could use the ample space of the King’s Head Theatre, they don’t, and everything is condensed and intensified in the claustrophobic area of Elyese/John’s containment. It’s a decision that works incredibly well in a thrust set up as you really get a sense of total voyeurism as a member of the audience. Even if you end up looking at Roslyn’s back or side if you’re sat in certain places, it still feels completely real and compelling. But that doesn’t mean to say you’ll be left out as Gross and Rolsyn makes sure that all of the audience is involved in the regaling. Other than that, Gross gives Roslyn the freedom to be their character and use the space and the pace as they feel fit, enhancing The State vs John Hayes’ complete organic nature and approach.

Sherry Coenen’s lighting also does well to augment moments of The State vs John Hayes, creating different colours and tones for when certain personalities are being explored. These prick your visual attention, but never take away from Roslyn’s performance, merely adding atmosphere and definition to some of the things that are going on rather than distracting or being overbearing.

Performance

Roslyn gives a spectacular performance throughout The State vs John Hayes. They completely and believably become the character right down to perfecting the accent and twitching through several physical ticks. It’s an all-enveloping performance that is close to indescribable, and Roslyn, through creating Elyese/John, has thought about detail in the performance as well as in creating the character. What’s astonishing is just how fluid they are at any moment, from directly reacting to audience reactions, to making mistakes and then correcting them completely in character to the point you have no idea whether it was intentional or not. Then there’s Roslyn’s ability to switch between characters on a dime. Body language, tone, and even physicality snaps into different forms at a moment’s notice, with Roslyn going from butch and testosterone-soaked John to a gentle and timid yarn-ball of femininity that is Elyese’s prison guard. There isn’t a more complete and incredible performance currently anywhere in London, as Roslyn brings an intensity and totalism that is utterly mind-blowing, knocking The State vs John Hayes right out of the park.

Verdict

The State vs John Hayes is an example that sometimes theatre is at its best when difficult. A traumatic and unforgettable bash to the head.

The State vs John Hayes plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, until 22 November 2015. Tickets are £19.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To Book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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