Camden Fringe 2023
Trapped in a cycle of domestic violence and rape, Roberta (Joan Villafañe) uses a knife she has hidden under her pillow to kill her husband, before calmly calling the police. She is convicted and after three years in jail her appeal is to be heard. Convicted Flower is a courtroom drama based on true events in Puerto Rico, and inspired by a subsequent play by Juan González Bonilla. Villafañe also plays the defence lawyer, the husband and the prosecutor, with changes of clothes placed on the stage to allow her to step into each character before us.
The story, transplanted from Puerto Rico to the UK features scenes in a UK appeals courtroom, but these are full of flowery, passionate language and barristers breaking down during their speeches. It gives the impression these have been based on bad US television soaps. The script feels like it might have been translated verbatim from Spanish, as the wording is at times literal and constantly feels like it is missing the mark. During the appeal, the defence lawyer talks about ‘previous members’ and ‘new members’ of the jury but they are different trials and different juries. It feels like ‘find and replace’ might have been used to translate language, without translating context, as speeches to the jury turn into requests to the judge. Words and phrases are often just wrong, suggesting the type of translation quality you’d expect from a website. When the prosecutor delivers his closing speech he announces ‘I have no more to say’ but then goes on… and on… and on.
Questions about why Roberta stayed in the relationship, and why she didn’t seek help from friends are raised, more than once, but then never addressed. Legal issues around battered woman syndrome, provocation and premeditation are mentioned, but all in order to rail against the justice system broadly, rather than in relation to this specific case. It seems strange to raise so many issues but to then leave them dangling.
There is an extended monologue when Roberta, now convicted, takes over first a drug gang, then a prison wing and finally the entire prison. Prison jumpsuits, shivs made from spoons and a standoff with armed prison guards – where are we meant to be?
This production feels significantly under rehearsed, not least because Villafañe is working script-in-hand for several of her roles. Her roles without the script give the strong impression of being made up on the fly as the show goes on. Sentences change direction halfway through and often give the impression of off-script rambling. The repeated costume changes are slow and under-rehearsed. There are interminable periods where changes take place off-stage, and we just sit there waiting; in one case a BBC News vox pop about the trial comes and goes while we wait and wait. I honestly can’t tell what director Frances Arroyo was thinking here.
The audience is given a ballot paper and pencil on arrival. When we are asked to vote, having barely gone over the details of the case, it feels like we are being asked to base our verdict simply on emotion, and to use our vote to condemn the entire justice system’s handling of domestic abuse. This voting process is slow, and then a slow count has a 7-3 split, not guilty on appeal. I assume this can change each evening depending on the audience.
I don’t know how the team felt that Convicted Flower was ready to present. It is not billed as a work in progress, but it is clearly under rehearsed, with what appears to be an unfinished script. Credit is due for the teams’ obvious passionate wish to speak up in support of the millions of victims of domestic abuse, but this production needs a serious rethink.
Based on true events and inspired by the Puerto Rican play Flor de Presidio (Convicted Flower) by Juan González Bonilla.
Devised by: Frances Arroyo & Joan Villafañe
Directed by: Frances Arroyo
Convicted Flower has completed its current run for Camden Fringe.