Murmuring Judges: The inner workings of a bleak justice system

Amelia Oakley 26 February 2016

In 1991, David Hare wrote Murmuring Judges as a critique of a failing justice system. 25 years on, and things are worse than ever.

In one of the opening scenes of Murmuring Judges, a new prisoner is led to his cell in the maximum security wing of one of Her Majesty’s Prisons, as it is the only space free. It’s that or “sleeping in the chapel.”

Currently in the UK, overcrowding means that over 12,000 prisoners are being held two to a cell designed for one. Squashed together with failing facilities and many of their basic dignities stripped from them, prisoners grow bitter and resentful. It should come as no surprise that reoffending rates for prisoners currently stand at 60% (and 75% for young offenders); why should a criminal learn to respect their society, when their society clearly has no respect for them?

Directing this play has brought more debate to the rehearsal room than I was expecting. Every day, a scene may dissolve as the actors suddenly want to figure out how they feel about the topics of the play. A common discussion we’ve had is to debate what prison is actually for: Is it purely for punishment, or rehabilitation? Can we call it a deterrent when more people than ever are being sent to prison, and more people than ever are reoffending as a result? Since the early 1990s, both figures have been rising. What is the proper response to this?

Whilst in the UK sentences are increasing, in Sweden, prison sentences are used less and less as a response to crime. Fewer people are being sent to prison, and as a result, fewer people are reoffending: Rates are half what they are in the UK, with some Swedish prisons reporting reoffending rates of 10%. What is the reason for this? In Sweden, prisoners have cells to themselves; there is a focus on education and employability; prisoners are put in charge of their own independence; rehabilitation and support groups are widely available for prisoners; when released, prisoners are properly looked after. In short, there is no punishment without purpose. The same cannot be said for the UK.

25 years after its premiere and Murmuring Judges is more relevant than ever. I’d encourage all those interested in justice, politics or the law to come and watch the play, engage with its themes and research the issues themselves. For Cambridge students, engagement shouldn’t be too difficult. The play is littered with scenes that take place in the collegiate Inns of Court, where irritatingly patriarchal Judges and Barristers enjoy their privilege and traditions, chomping down ‘roast venison baden-baden’ and laughing about the half of the human race they deem to be ‘sub-average’. The parallels to Cambridge University are painfully apparent. Only Irina, a newly-appointed barrister, is brave enough to recognise the privilege and traditions as anaesthetic; numbing the judges to the problems of the population that they claim to represent.

This production is funny, dramatic and visually stunning, and is filled with the greatest acting talent in Cambridge. When I pitched this play, I wanted to start a conversation. I didn’t expect to have such a wonderful time starting it. I’ve been very lucky to have gathered such an engaged and thoughtful team; what I want now is an audience that can engage and think critically about the play too.  

Murmuring Judges runs Tuesday 1st – 5th March at the ADC Theatre, 7.45pm. Tickets £12/£9