With two Oscar-winning films on the subject, the story of Harvey Milk's death at the hands of Dan White is well-known, so, as is the case for a biblical epic, the challenge for a creative team is to find something new to say. Emily Mann, whose 1982 award-winner The Execution of Justice is at Southwark Playhouse until 4 February, finds that something by going back to the words spoken by the people of San Francisco in the aftermath of the killings.
The verbatim technique – overlaying statements made by lawyers, police officers, journalists , doctors and friends of the deceased (Mayor George Moscone was also shot down) – captures the rawness of the emotions, the intensity of the Culture Clash that raged between communities and the pain of loss that affected the tens of thousands whose candles lit up the streets of San Francisco in a spontaneous expression of grief the day the men died. Knitted together by Ms Mann, these words originally spoken by those who were there, keep punching and punching and punching.
At the heart of the play is the trial of Dan White and (as ever) at the heart of the trial are the counsels for the defence and prosecution. Ben Mars (as prosecuting attorney Thomas Norman) blinks and boils as his complacent expectation of a verdict of murders in the first degree collapses under the strategy of the defence. Christopher Lane (as White's lawyer Douglas Schmidt) is all knowing sideways glances, smug smirks and quiet triumphalism as his shifting the jury from considering the facts to considering the men, pays off with a finding of voluntary manslaughters and a sentence of seven years and eight months.
Joss Bennathan directs a cast of twenty (many playing multiple parts) with a sure hand on a traverse stage which places the audience in the jury box in spatially as well as metaphorically, heightening the overwhelming sense of injustice felt so sharply in the late seventies - a feeling that still carries a sting today thirty years on from the play's first production. The decision to dispense with the interval, making the play an all-through 100 minutes, keeps the pressure on and the emotions raw, offering no respite from spiralling into the verdict to come – justice not so much executed as hanged, drawn and quartered.
One leaves the theatre in the hope that lives of Milk and Moscone were not lost in vain and that the hostility to minorities which drove Dan White to his dreadful acts and his jury to their perverse verdicts, are as outdated as the beige polyester clothes worn by both sides in the culture wars of the 1970s. But, as everyone knows, fashions tend to be revived – this play serves as a warning to resist those who would revive the fashion for a politics of hate.