“I think he’s a very ignorant woman.” Whether this was part of the script or just my bad hearing, I’ll never know. But for me this is where 12 Angry Women started. The original 1950s film, 12 Angry Men was about twelve men from different backgrounds who were serving as a jury for a murder case. After watching it, director Katie Ebner-Landy had a lightning-bolt moment: would it make a difference if they were all women?
What came out most strongly in the performance was the role of humanity, not gender. As one of the actresses said during the following Q&A session, “the roles are traditionally masculine, but they’re not implausible for women, too. You never see women like that on stage or TV.” Aggressive, fist-slamming women? No not usually, and an all-woman jury is pretty uncommon, too. Working with the original text, the women had just two rehearsals before their final performance. In these, they tried to read the roles as naturally as possible, changing lines only when they clashed with their characters as woman. As well as gender, the out-dated period and the Americanisms had to be contended with.
The end result was a raw, feisty, fully-functioning play. After a few minutes, I stopped taking notes and trying to figure out whether a man would have said the same thing or not. A guilty verdict meant the electric chair, so every detail counted. The women knew this, and it showed in their punchy acting. They knew how to be angry – a knife was even waved about at one point – but also how to simmer quietly without saying a word. They flung casual comebacks at each other and got their non-gender-specific underwear in such a twist that we stopped thinking about whether they were women or men – this was good acting.
The only thing that did jar a little was that there was a lot of reading from the script – with feeling, of course, but I sometimes noticed they weren’t just glaring at their notes for emphasis. But that’s part and parcel of a whirlwind experiment like this. The performance was pretty much complete, but the rehearsals had been more about developing characters than learning lines. The women hadn’t put on their personae, but grown into them.