Jeinsen Lam: There is an old joke that access to justice is like the Ritz. Anyone can get in so long as you have the money. Sadly that is now the reality of legal aid provision in the UK where everyday problems such as the loss of your job, gaining access to your child or help with your welfare benefits are not generally covered under the government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) legislation.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play The Invisible depicts how cuts to legal aid have pushed local advice centres to the brink of collapse but it also operates as a glimpse into the nightmare people face when they cannot afford advice and are faced with the terrifying choice as to whether they should risk representing themselves in court or accept that injustice is the price of being poor. In the age of austerity Lenkiewicz’s play forces the audience to question whether they are comfortable with abandoning people to their fate at some of the most vulnerable times in their lives; where finding a lawyer may be the difference between a place in women’s refuge or a return home to an abusive husband.
As a Law Centres lawyer myself I’ve seen first hand how cuts by successive governments to legal aid have removed accessed to justice for so many people. These days only 29% of the population is financially eligible for civil legal aid leaving many unable to afford a lawyer. The question is whether this play makes people angry enough to care?
Annegret Marten: The play’s press night took place during the biggest Tube strike in over a decade and on the day the Tory government presented a budget that will catapult disenfranchised people into even more precarious circumstances. You ask whether the play made me angry and I wouldn’t necessarily say that it did but it did make me worry. I had not previously considered the devastating impact legal aid cuts can have on society, and learning about LASPO and the impact of the funding cuts from the special programme that the Bush distributes only left me with further despair. The programme, with an introduction by QC barrister Richard Gordon, delivers the numbers, statistics and real life case studies that build the research base of Lenkiewicz’s play.
But the actual text refrains from overwhelming the audience with numbers. Instead, it focusses on the human stories of the people directly affected by these cuts. The main character, Gail (Alexandra Gilbreath), is a legal aid lawyer who runs a small law centre. We see her struggling to balance her messy private life and her legal practice. Disastrous online dates, annoyed boyfriends, clients needy to an almost comedic extent are all presented here in Lenkiewicz’s witty dialogue but the ultimate despair in all of these interactions is never far away. Everyone is stretched close to breaking point.
This focus on the human relationships posed a very real question to me. If even people who set out to help those left behind are pressured into turning away, how long will it take until our capacity to care about other human beings will be completely eroded. Five more years?
JL: I would like to add that the portrayal of legal aid lawyers in this play as disastrous daters is not accurate!
But joking aside I thought the overworked lawyers we see in this play are a really good reflection of every day law centre life. The cheap desks covered with files, the papers hanging from the ceiling and the organisation always on the brink of collapse. These little details give the play an air of authenticity which really showed that the production team understand this is a world far removed from the stereotypes we so often see of lawyers.
In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch said “Courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” That pretty much sums up Gail’s character in The Invisible. She sees the writing on the wall for her law centre and she knows she is compromising on who she can help but still she fights: save who you can and face the fading light with “grace”.
I really admired the ambition and the authenticity of this play and I loved how the writer captured the compassion but also the frustration of working within Legal Aid. This isn’t an episode of Suits and there are no power dressed Hollywood lawyers or big courtroom dramas, just ordinary people doing extraordinary work. I think this play also really did a good job of conveying how all the characters are isolated, frustrated, disenfranchised but not without hope. It’s those feelings that stuck with me rather than the over-arching narrative and I think that has a lot to do with the quality of some of the performances.
AM: I’m restraining myself to defy you vehemently on dating lawyers…
I thought the loss of human connections is very palpable in Michael Oakley’s staging. People constantly ask to be touched or hugged, to be let into other people’s lives. Intimate pillow talk conversations happen with people standing at opposite ends of the stage or there are always these messy tables in between the characters. Nicholas Bailey as disastrous date number 1 Ken is headed for a breakdown as he realises that he will have to self-represent in his divorce case. And Gail’s colleague Laura (a fabulously assertive Sirine Saba) fails to protect her private life from being invaded by her work despite her strong attitudes. People are inevitably so bound up in the limitations put on them by the failing system that they are often unable to form functioning connections with each other. I agree that the narrative resolution was probably ancillary to this.
What struck me were the moments in which music interrupt the action and people who are in a situation or conflict before simply started dancing only to return to their stand-offish corners after a little while. Just briefly they are able to rid themselves of the shackles, it’s a levity breaking in that they can never obtain in real life. I’m not sure they work entirely and they are certainly intentionally alienating.
You mention the papers hanging from the ceiling. What a clever bit of design by Ruth Suitcliffe which goes beyond a claim for authenticity. In addition to four stone pillars in the corners, there are two more hologram-like pillars on the sides as if some of the foundation of justice had already vanished. What if another one of the pillars flickers out of existence? Will the neatly arranged, labyrinthine structure of paper work suspended over the stage come crushing down? Would it mean the breakdown of dignity and the grace under the weight of the cuts?
JL: Ouch! Are you saying Nando’s is somehow not an acceptable date location?
The film It’s a Wonderful Life shows us that a man’s life is only ever one step away from disaster. In this play what would have happened had you not had that affair, or had you not chosen to get married? What if you could afford to pay a lawyer? The removal of legal aid means these fine margins become far more pronounced.
I think the hologram pillars may well be something to do with the fact that justice is illusory and is being eroded away, whilst the paper may well represent the numerous letters sent to one of the characters with disastrous results. Alternatively, it could be a metaphor for the bewilderingly complex legal system. Or, in true Red Dwarf style, they could just be a “light switch”.
In my view, some parts of this this play worked better than others. I was a big fan of the set design, and the performances by Saba as a young immigrant wife and by Niall Buggy as an elderly former client were excellent; they imbued their characters with warmth and pathos. This was particularly impressive given both played two different characters in this production and carried both off with aplomb. I would also say that Gilbreath absolutely nails life as a legal aid solicitor (dating history and nice hair aside). I thought the play brilliantly captured the kaleidoscope of emotions Gail goes through as she fights for her clients, rants about Michael Gove (always popular with a legal audience) and despairs as her Law Centre moves closer to the precipice of financial collapse.
For a long time I think the Government has been happy to portray Legal Aid Lawyers as fat cat lawyers on a gravy train and I this perception is a hard to dislodge from the public consciousness. If this play does one thing really well it is that it challenges this stereotype and does so really well. It shows that having a legal aid system is not about money but rather a reflection of the values we want from society: compassion, kindness and common decency.
AM: I don’t care to comment on the chicken wing front and I feel the fact that we’re having this exchange about Gail’s (and by extension other legal aid lawyer’s dating habits) stands in for a bigger issue I had with the play itself. Yes, these scenes are very funny but the way they intercut with the other harrowing stories about the older man upset by legalese letters about benefits repayment or the immigrant couple spiralling into domestic abuse, takes the sting out of what could have been a relentless attack on further inhumane cuts. Rather than wanting to rally for change I felt lulled into surrender.
JL: I think part of that may have been intentional. All those scenes serve different functions. Take for example the hilarious date at the beginning of the second half. Funny scene, yes but also an important one because it juxtaposes the difference between public perception of legal aid lawyers and the reality. It’s the monster that this play is trying to slay and gives important context to the stories we encounter.
This is a very busy play and some of the characters were very broadly drawn but the point behind their stories were effectively made. I would have liked to have seen those characters given more space and be fleshed out more but I guess maybe that’s the point. These are the invisible. The ignored. These people without a voice because they have no representation. If we care about these stories then we should care about restoring legal aid and I think this play is a very good start to making that happen.