Jury duty – who wouldn’t want to give it a go? Until you’ve actually spent days on end hearing about the harrowing details of a real crime with real victim(s), it sounds like bantz galore with a side of vitally important civic duty. Which makes it perfect material for a work of immersive theatre.
Developed as part of an R&D process designed to find interactive formats that work under lockdown conditions, Jury Duty absolutely owns its medium (Zoom, alongside other online resources) and makes a great case for why online shows deserve a lasting place in the theatrical landscape. It doesn’t in any way try to replicate the experience of being in the room with performers – rather it’s an experience that would be pointless to produce in person.
Although the narrative is nominally a trial, it’s really more of an investigation in which the 12 audience participants who form the jury must look through a large trove of evidence – some immediately accessible, some hidden – before voting on the guilt or innocence of Harry Briggs, a journalist accused of arson and murder.
Tom Black plays the defendant, while Joe Ball plays a court official who remains faceless throughout, his video tile displaying only a Ministry of Justice logo. The jury is initially divided into two groups in separate video chat rooms and given access to the initial evidence, along with an online police database that provides further evidence in response to certain search terms. Exhibits include a locked phone with an unknown PIN, a curious looking shopping list, and various witness statements. After about 30 minutes, we are allowed to put questions to the defendant, one or two jurors at a time, before the whole group is reunited to share its theories, and eventually, cast our votes.
For participants with the wherewithal to uncover it, there is a fairly deep back story leading up to the day Briggs allegedly burned down an office building, causing the death of a man trapped inside. The narrative sits in a nice spot – it has some enjoyable notes of overblown conspiracy thriller, along with smart contemporary references that bring a touch of realism. There is far too much evidence for one person to process on their own, making teamwork essential – but there are enough clues to go round to let most players experience the shiver of excitement that comes from making a breakthrough.
With almost all the evidence available straightaway, the ebb and flow of the investigation will be different for each jury. This means that a revelation that for my group proved to be a late curveball could, for others, be a basic fact underpinning the whole case. We found that Jury Duty shifted from something akin to an escape room, to a meta-theatrical work in which the medium is central to the message. It does this by introducing the concept of remote trials, which have generated great controversy since the pandemic forced them onto the political agenda, and could yet turn out to be the cause of significant injustice. The very official Ministry of Justice logo adorning the communications provided to the jury takes on a sinister mood. And what was previously the trivial matter of whether to send a fictional character to prison for 28 years suddenly carries a much weightier question: whether I am being made complicit in a sham.
After three months with no live performance in my life, it was great to experience a show that reminded me that theatre does not exist inside a box – even when it literally all takes place inside a box, in this case a Dell laptop. Not everyone will find the theme as compelling as we did, and some audiences will find the volume of information they are presented with overwhelming. We did it as a group of 12 friends, which made it a brilliant social occasion; I can’t vouch for the experience if you play with strangers. But if you feel like you’re up for it, Jury Duty really has a lot to offer.
Jury Duty is playable online this month; more info and tickets here.