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Review: Kunstler (White Bear Theatre)

Review by Dan Sinclair


⭐️⭐️⭐️


Aside from the Edinburgh Fringe, transfers of smaller American productions are few and far between in London. Therefore, the prosecution calls forward Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet. And that will be the first and last legal pun. I promise. A wanna-be comedian himself, I’ll leave the jokes to William Kunstler:


‘What do you call a lawyer over 70? Your honour.’


Kunstler is a two-hander that introduces us to the infamous part-time lawyer and full-time socialist, William M. Kunstler. Framed through a lecture at a US college, we are taken through a 90-minute blast of his greatest hits. Namely, his defence of ‘The Chicago Seven’, Yusef Salaam, the Wounded Knee Incident and his role in negotiations at the Attica Prison Uprising. Supported by a member of the student body (and future lawyer in the making) Kerry, we get a snapshot of the significant influence Kunstler had on American society during his time. 



Originally performed at the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival, the play comes to the White Bear Theatre a decade later for its European premiere. The timing of this London production is difficult. It is impossible to ignore the current US social situation, notably Columbia University where there is a bloody standoff between the NYPD and the student body. The opening of the play shows us a stuffed doll, hung from its neck bearing the title ‘Traitor’. We hear the chants of ‘Kunstler must go!’ from the mob outside. With a current political backdrop that couldn’t be more appropriate, the play doesn’t really go anywhere with this. The only response to this setup is a handful of grumbles and shrugs from Kunstler. Instead, the play swiftly moves away from the chaos we hear outside to the meat of the play - a speech from William Kunstler to you, the students. 


Whilst I may have a few grumbles about the writing (which I’ll get into), this play was a monologue masterclass. A veteran of the American stage, Jeff McCarthy delivers a truly captivating central performance as Kunstler. Originating the role back in 2014, it is clear that this role was written with McCarthy in mind. From the outset, he gives a surprisingly subtle physical performance. We see Kunstler's passionate energy trying to fight off the shakes of old age. He is every bit the ringmaster. To deliver a 90-minute, almost uninterrupted monologue is no mean feat, and McCarthy carries it off easily. Credit here must also be given to the direction of Meagen Fay. Each movement feels natural, you never get the sense of ‘ah, now is the scene where I must stand here’, which is impressive in a space such as the White Bear. 



Nykila Norman plays the previously mentioned Kerry. I have to emphasise the wonderful performance she delivers with the little she is given. She is funny, intelligent and does an excellent job holding Kunstler to account in the final moments of the play. My issue with the role of Kerry, however, comes from the writing. Throughout the bulk of the play, it felt like her only purpose was to support Kunstler’s storytelling. Even in the staging, she was completely sidelined, spending the vast majority of the play sitting on a chair at the far edge of the stage with only a handful of lines. Kerry did not seem to be a character that interested writer Jeffrey Sweet nearly as much as the titular role did, which is a shame. 


I desperately wanted to see one of the trials that Kunstler recounts. They are fascinating pieces of American legal history, and as brilliantly as Jeff McCarthy describes them, I want to see them. This doesn’t even have to be something at the scale of the 2020 Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of The Chicago 7, there is a long list of recent productions in London that have found economic and entertaining ways to stage legal cases (eg: It’s True, It’s True, It’s True by Breach Theatre, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman.) The design of the production was simple, a few wooden chairs and a lectern. It is clear from previous production images that this is a stripped-back version, inevitably from venue restrictions. This was no matter though, this is a play that wants you to give your undivided attention to Jeff McCarthy, and you do. 



Kunstler sets out to give a play-by-play of the titular character’s life. But at points, it almost entirely relies on the weight of real-world events to do its storytelling. I do wish the character of Kerry had more to do throughout the play, as alongside wanting to enjoy more of Nykila Norman’s nuanced performance, I feel that this could’ve allowed the play to have its main action take place in the present. I wanted Kerry to fight back earlier, I wanted the protests and boycotts to have much more of an impact on the story. The law is a living breathing thing, but Kunstler seems slightly stuck in the history books. 


Kunstler is showing at the White Bear Theatre until 18th May. Tickets available from www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk 


Photos by Olivia Lutz

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