The State vs John Hayes, King’s Head Theatre

Lucy Roslyn, The State vs John Hayes (c) Jemma Gross (7)Elyese Dukie is going to die tomorrow. Though she needs to get through tonight first, at least she’s not alone. We’re in there with her, in her cell on Texas’ Death Row in 1959, as is John Hayes. But we’re not really there, and neither is John. We’re all in Elyese’s head, a figment of her very ill mind, but she’s still going to get the chair in the morning because “they would never send John…but they would send me.” For one of fictional Elyese/John’s last hours, we join her on an exquisitely performed journey akin to riding a rollercoaster handcuffed and blindfolded as Elyese reviews the dark corners and glowing intimacies of her past that led her to this moment.

Epsilon Productions continues to mature with this topical, one-woman show that’s part of The King’s Head Theatre’s new, new writing festival, #Festival45. Lucy Roslyn’s script unfolds Elyese’s troubled past spiraling towards the moment she murders her husband Dale, lover Lorraine and births John Hayes, her killer alter-ego spawned from Schizophrenia, Multiple Personality Disorder or severe childhood trauma. Elyese certainly isn’t alone in her struggle against those that live inside her head but take over her body, what with 73% of female inmates in America currently diagnosed with mental health issues; the percentage of mentally ill prisoners in the less-aware 1950s is unimaginable.

Roslyn, who also performs, begins the piece as John. We only meet Elyese later. She embodies him with perfectly sculpted hand movements and a southern redneck accent, deep as John, light and fragile as Elyese. His/her charm and charisma is unquestionable but can turn to violence and grief on a hair trigger, showing Elyese as a victim of the system unable or unwilling to provide her with the care she needs. As such, it’s a powerful critique of the US justice system.

Lighting designer Sherry Coenen reminds us of John’s threatening presence with greenish pulses when Elyese is struck with a crippling back spasm, a symbol of the control he has over her. The subtle heartbeat in dangling filament lights is Elyese’s, which will cease all too soon as electricity surges through her slender, fragile-looking body. The current seating arrangement, irregular and with a thrust so deep it’s nearly in the round, didn’t quite work with the lighting – those sat along the back wall of the stage had lights in their eyes.

The script begins as a straightforward monologue to the audience, with John flirting and joking. The structure becomes fragmented as her mental state breaks down; though she evokes sympathy she also evokes fear. If John will kill those Elyese loves the most, anyone is at risk, though it’s understandable how people immediately fall for his charms. There are times where the text rambles, but these moments are few and lead up to important story points; Roslyn’s performance adds light and shade that keeps the momentum going. Her performance consistently captivates with its commitment and intensity as well as using high levels of detail to differentiate the two characters from each other. A political firecracker with a stellar performance and numerous layers, this Argus Angel winner packs one hell of a punch.

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