The State vs John Hayes Review

Kings Head Theatre  28 October – 22 November.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Good grief, that was intense.

Lucy Roslyn’s one-act play about Elyese Dukie, a Death Row inmate in 1950s Texas, is powerful and puzzling.

Elyese is initially defiant and mocks the court and her stuttering attorney, but as twitches and pains begin, her underlying regret emerges. But for what? She is perfectly happy describing her killing of husband Dale. Elyese talks about John Hayes, the man she turned into to kill, through memories of her childhood and marriage. John has made Elyese a celebrity, especially in the women’s prison, and she (he) has seduced a guard, who is urging John to plead insanity to avoid the electric chair.

Roslyn’s performance is hypnotic – she uses her voice and subtle body language, along with wonderfully intuitive lighting design, to portray the different characters in Elyese’s life, and leads us on a rollercoaster ride as Elyese/John. One moment she is charming and seductive, the next raging and foul mouthed. As she finally reveals the truth about what happened to her lover, her regret and sense of loss are palpable.

So, is she insane, or in denial? Elyese is always talking about choosing to be John, about how she’s done with Elyese, and then done with John. She says she wants to do the right thing, and is facing her death almost with relief. Does she deserve to die? There are no answers here, and the last line of the play just leaves you with even more questions. The writing is simply superb – Roslyn has interlaced almost poetic accounts of death with dark, dark humour. The history of the character, as told by Elyese, evokes sympathy, but then a sudden change in mood and heightened aggression makes you realise that Elyese might just be seducing the audience as well.

A captivating, thought-provoking, and wonderfully dark drama.