Unique Projects – 23.


Sound Sculpture 2013 – Stafford Shire Hall Gallery.

Written by Mal Dewhirst, performances in collaboration with Fired Up Theatre and Staffordshire Library and Archives. 

Twenty Three is a poetry sound sculpture written and produced by the Staffordshire Poet Laureate 2012/13,  Mal Dewhirst.

It reflects the lives of the people who were involved with the Court Room in Stafford at around 1850; these include the judges and clerks, prosecution and defence, the jury and most of all the defendants who found themselves as the pawns in this theatre of justice.

The piece starts at a sound carnival but all too quickly we hear the sound of running feet pursued by that of a police whistle, this transports us into the world of the courtroom.

In the dock the defendant stands in a box, the dock, surrounded with iron barbs.  Ahead is the raised seating of the court functions, where the officials, the judges, clerks and the representatives of the prosecution and the defence are seated to front of them, to the sides there is the Jury on the right and the opposite the press reporters. Behind and above the defendant sits the public in the gallery.

The defendant enters the box via a staircase that brings them up from the holding cell. As they enter the box the attendees as court all stare at the defendant, some are pointing and whispering to each other, the persecution the people whose crimes are laid out before the court begins before the court is even call to order. The mere fact that they are in the dock is seen as confirmation of their guilt and insignificance. Each court cases last an average of eight minutes with the defendant unable to offer any words of defence.

This sound piece takes the thoughts of un-named felons and seeks to provide an insight into their motivations.

We hear the words of a thief caught stealing mouldy bread from a large house, handed over because of a chance for a footman to step up the ladder. The use of two voices alternating creates the impression that this was a common crime with many people being convicted of taking bread. Bread is the basic food commodity that those who were the poorest could not afford.

The Murderer whose motives are hidden but nevertheless serious, leaving us to believe that in his arrogance even he was unsure of his own guilt. Still he believes that his education stands him above the normal felons who appear before the court and therefore should see him released.

We meet the Drunkard whose demons haunt her every hour only the drink quietens the voices that have escaped her past and constantly talk to her. Again this is done with two voices at time talking over each other in a rambling defence that is driver from the sounds in her head, tormented by flies, babies, church bells and horses’ hooves; she blames the gangs Scuttlers for her plight. The Scuttlers were the gangs that operated out of Manchester and ventured south into Staffordshire, as did the Peaky Blinders from Birmingham, who ventured into the Black Country most of which was in Staffordshire, before the boundary changes created the county of the West Midlands.

The Defiant Coal Woman, who has appeared before the court before and challenges to whole process, she is admitting nothing and places the burden of proof into the hands of the prosecution. She refuses to show her hands, her donnies as she calls them. Defendants were photographed and forced to show their hands in the early days of law enforcement, this is before finger printing and it was believed that distinguishing marks on the hands would be useful in the identification of felons.

We hear of the traitorous exploits of the coin clipper whose naive defence of the activities show his ignorance of the seriousness of the offence that is seen to threaten the whole financial stability of the country.

The other characters such as the Judge, the Clerk, the Clerks wife, the jury and the public in the gallery all add their voices to the proceedings. Particularly The Clerk and his wife who add a voice of humanity.

Why is Twenty Three significant?

  • The piece lasts for 23 minutes.
  • All the crimes happened on the 23rd one at 23:00hrs
  • Human Reproductive Cells have 23 Chromosomes
  • All other Human cells have 46 Chromosomes held in 23 pairs.
  • Human Bio-rhythmic cycles last 23 days.
  • Blood takes 23 seconds to travel around the human body.
  • The Human arm has 23 joints – nearly all crime requires the use of the arm to perform the act.

THESE ARE ALL HUMAN STORIES – hence there is heart beat that runs through the complete piece as the rhythm and beat, it is a constant steady beat and provides a link with normality, to remind us that whilst these events take place in the court room, elsewhere the daily toil of normal life carries on. It sits at the edge of the piece providing a pivot between honesty and crime, between life and death.

Life is also represented through the sound motif of the drunkard’s demons. The baby crying, the church bells, horses’ hooves on gravestones all representing the cycle of birth, marriage and death underpinned by the hum of the fly as a representative of a primeval beat.