Political acts

Theatre has a tiny audience compared with the media. But, says human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Sm

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 re-humanise the dehumanised. At the time it was staged, no law court had recognised the rights of the prisoners, and advocacy for them was confined to the court of public opinion. Particularly when Archbishop Desmond Tutu volunteered to play a role for a week in New York, the important messages of the piece reached hundreds of people in the theatre and many more who read the reviews.

It could be argued that such productions only preach to the converted, as few apologists for Guantanamo are likely to go to a play by that name by mistake. But I think of Moazzam Begg - who was released at the end of January - one day walking down a street in London and seeing a fading Guantanamo poster on a wall. How strange it would be for him to realise that the jumpsuited actor on the poster was playing him, and at a time when he was on the other side of the world, unaware that anyone cared about his fate.

Political theatre has its faults, not least didacticism. Yet the alternative is apathy, and I know which I prefer. Political theatre is hopelessly partisan, yet why is it a crime to hold honest opinions with passion? Theatre audiences are tiny compared with the numbers who consume the modern mass media, but when Lorilei first told her story, it was to an audience of 12 who were changed for ever: after Langley's trial, the jurors jointly signed an open letter condemning the retributive spirit of the prosecution.

Reprieve is dedicated to providing front-line assistance to people facing the death penalty. So why would such an organisation bother with a spot of theatre? Because it works, connecting with people on a deeper level than if they were simply to read about a case in the headlines, or to plough through some rant I may have written for the opinion pages.

The first production that Reprieve brought to London was This Is a True Story, about Howard Neal, a Mississippi death-row prisoner with an IQ of 54. In part because of the attention Neal received in the wake of the play, he remains alive today, reconnected to a world he thought had thrown him away. His lawyers were reinspired. Volunteers travelled to the US to help him. Audience members still write him letters. Neal's hope still falters, but at least now he knows that he is not alone.

If all theatre were wildly political, the West End would be a dull place. Yet the current burden of proof is clearly misplaced. The artist is asked to justify a political production: can it, or should it, meaningfully influence the political debate? Lorilei is a production that shifts the question, asking apolitical theatre to justify its polite demurral on issues of such significance.

I doubt, however, that audiences will talk about politics as they leave the theatre after hearing Lorilei's story. This is human theatre, not just a piece about the death penalty. Bertolt Brecht once said: "Art is not a mirror to reflect society; it is a hammer to shape it." Sometimes the hammer and the mirror can effectively coexist.

Clive Stafford Smith is a founder of Reprieve (www.reprieve.org.uk). Lorilei: a meditation on loss is at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London EC1 (020 7837 7816) from 15 February to 5 March, Tuesday to Sunday, 8pm. Stafford Smith and others will lead a discussion each evening