Arms in shackles, clad in an orange jumpsuit, a man approaches a microphone – then sits down and begins to speak. His words carry an unusual potency, and a particularly sombre chill. For this is a condemned man, a prisoner on Death Row in an unnamed state of America… and when the long hand reaches the short hand, he tells us, it will be time for him to die.
The prisoner’s monologue is delivered with stunning commitment by Paolo Scheriani, who proves an extremely powerful actor as well as an accomplished playwright. Speaking in Italian, Scheriani is sometimes hesitant, sometimes angry, and sometimes overtaken by an unstoppable torrent of words. There are a few issues with the surtitles – particularly the amount of speed-reading required to keep up with the more voluble parts of the monologue – but the raw emotion running through every second of Scheriani’s performance requires no translation to feel or understand.
There’s a clever circularity to the script, which returns subtly and repeatedly to the ticking clock that counts out the prisoner’s final hour, and there’s a bitter irony to its treatment of familiar details like the notorious last meal. But Scheriani doesn’t limit himself to the obvious topics. According to him, Death Row has its own mythology: a complex, almost mystical belief system, based round the idea that when your body is stolen from you your shadow remains. The condemned prisoner is haunted by visions of those who’ve gone before, and his half-crazed theories are an eloquent testimony to the cruelty of a system which has kept him waiting for years.
Interestingly, the details of the condemned man’s crime are held back till near the end. You could ask whether it’s right to include them at all, and I think the jury’s still out on that one: revealing the truth of what he actually did dissipates some of the empathy the script’s worked so hard to build. But the narrative does paint a convincing picture of a life ruined by a cruel and bullying father; and the point, perhaps, is to put a whole system on trial.
It soon becomes clear that we, the audience, are part of that system too. Cast as witnesses to the execution, the prisoner places us under a chilling curse. Our lives will be changed forever, he says, when we see him die.
And in a manner of speaking, we do witness his death. I forced myself to watch, and the experience was every bit as horrific and disturbing as I’d always expected it to be. But I find myself wondering why Scheriani has built his script around one particular means of execution. The electric chair is clearly barbaric – even the United States has broadly reached that conclusion – and focusing on the details of this outmoded technique risks distracting attention from the true issue at the play’s heart.
Here in Europe, where the death penalty is forever forbidden by international law, it’s easy to view capital punishment in a historical light – little more than a horror story, told by grainy footage on black-and-white TV. But Another Dead Man Walking reminds us that just across the Atlantic, the debate is still a matter of life and death. And if you dare to watch this impassioned and compelling play, then – just as the curse predicted – that’s a fact you may find you never forget again.