The Quality of Mercy at Courtyard Theatre
The minds of serial killers hold a peculiar fascination over many people. Speaking to that audience, The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman does a fantastic job of constructing a narrative that doesn’t justify but does explain well some of the things Shipman might have considered while trying to excuse his up to 250 victims, making this a powerful investigation into the human psyche.
The play is a one-hander, exploring the life and crimes of GP-turned-killer Shipman. It is written and performed by Edwin Flay, whose grandmother was one of the victims. With great finesse, strong writing and a remarkable amount of research into the victims and the psychological state of Shipman’s mind, Flay impresses with the sheer insight – and almost even empathy – into the killer’s own justifications. The framing narrative is that Shipman, towards the end of his life, is attempting to provide a counter-narrative to the tabloids by recording a tape of himself explaining his actions.
Nevertheless, the play never ceases to be condemning, as it indeed should: even if Shipman might have comforted himself with how his actions relieved his patients of pain, it’s quite self-evident that it was, in the end, primarily a question of power. In a move to take power away from him and give it back to the victims, Flay’s narrative also incorporates the victims’ perspectives, painting their individual cases in empathetic detail. As an added touch, director Bernie C Byrnes’s stage features a screen in the background where each of the victims’ names are listed one by one as their cases occur during Shipman’s lifespan in the narrative.
Aside from that, the set design is suitably simple with just one hospital bed, a table and a chair. The entire focus is on the actor, and Flay is marvellous at moving through the narrative and channelling the serial killer’s different emotions, from genuine sympathy for his patients in some cases to outraged anger when people dare to question him.
The Quality of Mercy is a powerful play that attempts to give insight into the unknowable mind of a serial killer, and in doing so, it is refreshingly apt, well-rounded and empathetic, without ever excusing the heinous acts. As such, it can serve as a strong example of how a well-done psychological study can be produced at the theatre.
The Quality of Mercy is at Courtyard Theatre from 27th September until 8th October 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.