In the programme notes, director Sarah Esdaile refers to “Coyote On A Fence” as a messy play. Meaning that the subjects the play deals with, murder and capital punishment are messy. They raise difficult moral and sociological conundrums about justice, retribution and culpability. However, it is not merely the subject matter that is messy, the play is too.
Bruce Graham was inspired to write this play after corresponding with James Lee Beathard, a man on death row who wrote obituaries for his fellow inmates after they were executed. The obituaries followed the old adage “Don’t speak ill of the dead”, and recalled only affirmative things from the inmate’s life. Graham was intrigued to know how James Berthard was able to write these obituaries, and why he never mentioned the crimes the men were accused of. Surely an obituary should tell the totality of a person’s life?
This play is a work of fiction in which the main character John Brennan is loosely based upon James Lee Berthard. Journalist Sam Fried (Eric Loren) from the New York Times corresponds with John after reading one of his obituaries and arranges to visit him on death row. The playwright users these two characters to try and explore the issue of capital punishment, but sadly seems unwilling to commit to any point of view. What we have are weak, emotive arguments, for and against capital punishment, none of which are backed up by sound rational. In the play Brannan uses the analogy of a badly treated dog; if a dog is kicked, starved and neglected it is perverse to think it will jump on its owners lap and lick his face. Surely it is more realistic to expect the unfortunate animal to snarl and bite at every opportunity.
To back up this argument we have the character of Bobby Reyburn, a nazi saluting white supremist who murdered 37 black people by arson. Bobby is a wretched, uneducated man, who hobbles as a result of a shattered hip caused when he was gang-raped as a child. Unwanted and unloved by his mother, the only person who showed him any affection was his Uncle, a black-hating white supremist who injected the same poison into Bobby’s young simple mind. Covered in tattoos, hobbling like some demented animal, and using vile racist language we are obviously meant to dislike Bobby. However, as John befriends him, Bobby slowly shows small acts of kindness, and even displays a gentle, differential attitude. In order to please his cellmate Bobby stops using racist language, but seems unable to reject his racist ideology. It is obvious to all and sundry that he is insane, and is in no way culpable for his crime.
Alex Ferns as Bobby Alvin is superb. Though covered in tattoos, expressing vile racist propaganda, and giggling like a demented Jack Nichols from The Shining, he managers to express a quiet if disconcerting dignity. One feels both drawn and disgusted by his portrayal of this impaired individual.
Ben Cross who plays John Brennan, has a quiet reserved integrity, that captures the anguish of a man caught up in a inhumane system, and Jo Martin captures the frustration of prison warden Shawna Duchamps, who in order to cover her unease after each execution turns to booze.
In the programme notes there are extracts from an interview with James Beathard in which he presents in a few simple sentences a strong and vigorous argument against capital punishment. What a pity that in a play dedicated to his memory, those views are not expressed, nor challenged. Instead we are left with a messy play that never seems to get at the crux of any of the issues the play sets out to cover.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Trite play....purely superficial." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Agreeable fare.... but thin." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Gripping death-row drama....A play of rare power, compassion and insight."