Attend a courtroom drama where audience are invited to play the role of the jury

Updated: Jan 31, 2018, 09:55 IST | Shunashir Sen

The judiciary, by definition, is a justice-delivery mechanism that relies entirely on facts and evidence to reach a conclusion. The moral standing of a judge or jury member is supposed to play no part in a trial

Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial
Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial

The judiciary, by definition, is a justice-delivery mechanism that relies entirely on facts and evidence to reach a conclusion. The moral standing of a judge or jury member is supposed to play no part in a trial. But, is this always the case? Do the keepers of the law adhere unwaveringly to rulebooks? Or are they, like other mere mortals, prone to letting societal drawbacks like class divides and gender bias colour their judgment?

Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial

These are the questions that lie at the heart of Ayn Rand's 1933 play, Night of January 16th. It's a courtroom drama in which Karen Andre, the mistress of a dubious businessman named Bjorn Faulkner, stands trial for his murder. And throughout the course of the plot line, Andre's identity as a woman works against her. She's standing trial for murder, and not the choice she made in having an affair with a married man and co-conspiring with him in shady monetary deals. But, it's nonetheless used to paint her as a murderess by those characters who fail to recognise that at least from a moral standpoint, both Faulkner and Andre stood on the same shaky ground. Except that being a man, the former is viewed far more favourably in the eyes of a hypocritical society.

Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial

"To some extent, the play is feminist in nature," says Laura Mishra, who is directing an Indian adaptation called The Woman on Trial, which will be staged later this week. "The witnesses would have been more lenient if a man had been standing trial instead. There is the character of a housekeeper, for instance, who judges the woman despite Faulkner being equally involved in whatever happened. For this housekeeper, the man is a bechara, while the woman is the b**ch for leading him on," she adds.

Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial

Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial

Actors at rehearsals for The Woman on Trial

Mishra also says that ultimately, any legal system is a man-made one that is not completely infallible. "Here, people decide the fate of other human beings and there is a sense of prejudice that often comes in the way of a fair judgment. The set for the play is thus completely white, where the aim is to give you the idea that the law is supposed to be pure. It is supposed to be untouched. But when we walk through it, we walk with dirty feet that make it murky," she reveals.

The director adds that her adaptation retains the original ending, where audience members are invited to play the role of the jury. This was a novel idea that Rand had had because over the years, the judgment that people have meted out has been a live barometer of the moral tropes prevalent in the society of the day. It's indicated, for example, what sort of gender roles people in previous decades ascribed to men and women. But have attitudes changed much from 1933 to 2018? Is society today more open in general to view the two sexes from an equal footing?

Laura Mishra
Laura Mishra

Well, that's a question that the Mumbai audience will partly answer for itself, after it's called upon to decide on Andre's fate when The Woman on Trial is staged at a Bandra venue.

ON: February 3, 8 pm onwards
AT: St Andrew's Auditorium, Bandra West.
CALL: 9322225157
COST: Rs 200 to Rs 700

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