20 Minutes of Action

Dec 3 2021 | By More

★★★★☆  Unflinching case-study

Assembly Roxy, Upstairs: Wed 1 – Fri 3 Dec 2021
Review by Tom Ralphs

20 Minutes of Action, Pollyanna Esse’s powerful piece of verbatim theatre about horrific real-life events in Stanford University in 2015 gets a welcome second outing at the Assembly Roxy this week, after premiering at Bedlam two years ago.

In 2015, sometime around midnight, two students cycling across the campus of Stanford University saw what appeared to be a couple having sex next to a dumpster. On closer inspection, they noticed that only the man appeared to be moving. The woman underneath him was still. As they approached to ask him what he was doing, he ran away. The two students gave chase, eventually capturing him, after which he was charged with three felony offences.

Benjamin Sumrie with Fiona Forster behind. Pic: Milo Hynes

This is the starting point of the real-life story that forms the basis of 20 Minutes of Action, the new play written and directed by Pollyanna Esse. The title comes from a letter written by the father of the man arguing that his son should not go to jail, as it would be “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

Although the play is a verbatim piece taken directly from the statements of those involved, the names, dates and place have been changed. A short film clip at the start of the play explains that this is for legal reasons, and the characters are listed only by such titles as The Victim and The Perpetrator.

control the narrative

When all of the material used is already in the public domain, the case attracted worldwide publicity, and was the subject of a 2020 movie of the same name, it can only be assumed that the threat of legal action relates to the possibility of the offender, or his parents, claiming that the selection of material is biased against him and them.

This in itself is a sign of the extent to which the accused was able to control the narrative right from the moment they were caught, and the way that white-middle class privilege arguably led to the trial judge imposing only a six month sentence and registration on the sex offenders register, for sexual offences that would normally carry seven year sentences.

Fiona Forster and Sophie Westwood with Benjamin Sumrie. Pic: Milo Hynes

The play can be seen as a way of redressing the balance in the case, not only giving the victim’s version of events and showing how the assault affected her life and the life of her sister, but also highlighting the inconsistencies in the defendant’s case and the wider advantages he had in how the case was pursued.

That The Victim (played by Fiona Forster) was drunk at the time of the attack is not in doubt, but the sobriety or otherwise of The Perpetrator (Benjamin Sumrie) is. He claims to have been intoxicated but as noted in the statement from The Witness (Ellie Watermeyer) he managed to run away when confronted.

He also claimed to recall exactly what happened in the hours leading up to the assault. The play does not note that his memory of events on the night was a lot vaguer than it was after several lengthy sessions with his legal team but does highlight how his apparent recall served to further fuel assumptions about her character and make it easier for his defence team to convince a judge that he was genuinely a nice boy when the nature of the assault suggested something very different.

the effects of privilege

The cast as a whole give a straight reading of the verbatim evidence, letting the words speak for themselves.

The only exceptions to this are The Perpetrator’s Father (Henry Mobius) and Mother (Molly Reed), with Mobius giving a performance that highlights the effects of privilege and a contempt for anything that may stop his son achieving his dreams, and Reed building on this with a steadfast refusal to question her perception of her son or acknowledge that there could be another side of the story.

Henry Mobius with Benjamin Sumrie. Pic: Milo Hynes

Questions from The Reporter (Evie Faber) to The Victim are also used to deliver detail and illustrate ideas about the case and the intrusive nature of enquiries.

The juxtaposition of the statements and cutting between the different viewpoints means that the dialogue is freed from the context of the trial and works to highlight the issues the play is rightly focusing on. The hypocrisy of The Perpetrator wanting to use his experience to highlight the danger of campus drinking culture, rather than focusing on the effects drinking had on him and the underlying issues that were behind his attack, also speaks to the wider issues of victim shaming and blaming, and the unequal outcomes in cases like this.

It’s a powerful piece that crams a lot into its 50 minutes, crystallising the issues surrounding women’s safety in a case study that shows why they need to be addressed.

Running time: 50 minutes (no interval)
Assembly Roxy (Upstairs), 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Wednesday 1 to Friday 3 December 2021
Evenings: 7.30pm.

Tickets and details: Book here.

Fiona Forster. Pic: Milo Hynes


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