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Starting life as a teleplay, Reginald Rose’s famous courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men, continues to grip audiences wherever it’s staged. The latest touring version features a host of familiar names, including former Emmerdale, Waterloo Road and Casualty actor Jason Merrells, who plays the key role of Juror Eight. We recently caught up with Jason to find out more...

In the interests of justice, juries always meet in secret and their deliberations stay behind closed doors. But the classic play Twelve Angry Men takes us inside those secret discussions as we watch one jury struggle to reach a verdict on an unnamed suspect.

Ideas are explored, opinions voiced, bigotries exposed, arguments fought and minds changed in a drama which remains as resonant today as when it was first aired as a teleplay and film in the 1950s.

The key role is Juror Eight, who forces his fellow panel members to reconsider a decision which is initially made without any investigation of the facts. And gradually the audience sees that this may not be as cut-and-dried a case as they had at first suspected.

The role of Juror Eight is currently being played by Jason Merrells in a UK tour that includes stop-offs in Wolverhampton and Lichfield. The cast also features Michael Greco, Gray O’Brien and Tristan Gemmill.

Jason is a familiar television face, having played businessman Declan Macey in Emmerdale, head teacher Jack Rimmer in Waterloo Road and receptionist Matt Hawley in Casualty. And this isn’t the first time he’s portrayed Juror Eight.

“The first time round was in 2015 and it was very much a sort of favour to Bill Kenwright,” he recalls. “He needed someone to do a small part of the tour, which was already on its way. I was between filming jobs, so it fitted perfectly, and it was a great part, so I snapped his hand off and said yes. I loved my time doing it and was fascinated by it as a piece.”

And so when he was asked to join the current tour, Jason jumped at the chance - and then it took on an additional significance. “When I said yes to it, well, shortly afterwards, Bill died, and I’m really glad that we agreed to work together before that happened.”

In 1957 Twelve Angry Men was made into an Oscar-nominated film with Henry Fonda as Juror Eight. Jason feels its message is just as important nearly 70 years on.

“The play is a New York cross-section of men; it’s men because at that time that’s what juries were made up of. America is going through a serious tipping point of change; the Civil Rights movement is beginning the backlash against the way African Americans are treated in all the major cities of America. That is a background noise to 1957 that you can’t ignore when you come to approach New York at that time.

“The kid on trial is Puerto Rican. Although that is never mentioned, that was the intention of the writer. And there is casual racism that’s thrown around the room. We all have prejudices inside us - in fact, that’s one of Juror Eight’s speeches. He says that it’s very difficult to get rid of your own prejudice but you have to try because if you don’t it stops you seeing anything clearly.”

And such prejudice hasn’t gone away, says Jason.

“It’s a really well-made play, and that is its continuing appeal. It just seems to me to have even more resonance now. It feels more pertinent than it did even in 2015. I’m reading about guys on Death Row in America at the moment. There are very strong cases against them being there because of miscarriages of justice or questions about the way the case was handled, and it’s exactly what’s happening in the play. No-one ever says and no-one ever knows if the kid at the centre of the play is innocent or not, but the benefit of the doubt is enough to say the state shouldn’t be killing someone when there’s doubt.

“I think this play has got everything. The essence of drama is conflict, and because it’s theatre it’s also a word-based medium - this is a conflict in argument, so you couldn’t get anything more theatrical than that. It’s got 12 very different, very distinct, really well-wrought characters, some of whom are very funny, some of whom are disturbing and some of whom you want to root for.”

For Jason, Juror Eight may be unnamed but he has an important backstory. “I knew the film and Henry Fonda, and my memory of his style in the show was very quiet, very rooted, very straightforward and very gentle but with a moral firmness. I kind of remembered that, and I suppose that’s how I approached it in 2015.

“What was really interesting, and one of the reasons that I wanted to do it again, is when I read it again, I felt quite differently about Juror Eight. I thought much more about who he was. So this is an architect in 1957 in New York; an academic. He’s a progressive - he probably listens to bebop, Charlie Parker. He’s probably well aware of the injustices going on across the country, and I would think he is someone who is also an abolitionist.

“I don’t believe he would be thinking we should be killing anybody, certainly not frying them in a chair with a sponge on their head. I think he’s of the opinion that that’s barbaric, as am I. So I approached him much more with that in mind, and I think that makes my interpretation of him this time a bit more politically keen to see this guilty verdict turned over. That doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring the massive questions that are still there, but I think he’s saying: ‘Look, there are these doubts, and therefore I’m really, really sure we shouldn’t be burning someone alive in a chair.’”

So has Jason been a juror?

“I’ve never been asked to be on a jury, but I think I would be very careful to convict. It’s very hard to keep emotions out of it. Juror Eight is trying to do that, but there are certain cases that click people’s buttons. It’s hard to keep personal emotions out of it, but I would do my best. The jury system is problematic, but it’s better to have a system that has some moral code to it -  which is that you must be sure because the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not on the defence. It’s not for the defendant to out-and-out prove that you didn’t do something; it’s up to the prosecution to prove out-and-out that you did. And this is what is explored so well in the play.”

Twelve Angry Men shows at Lichfield Garrick from Monday 8 to Saturday 13 April and Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Monday 6 to Saturday 11 May

By Diane Parkes