Kings Head dives inside the mind of a killer in The State vs John Hayes

Lucy Roslyn, The State vs John Hayes. Picture: Jemma Gross

Lucy Roslyn, The State vs John Hayes. Picture: Jemma Gross - Credit: Archant

Director Jemma Gross and writer/actress Lucy Roslyn talk to Scarlet Hayes about their play depicting a prisoner facing the death penalty.

“I want plays that are making commentary on what’s happening in the world now because the world is fucked up and it’s theatre that needs to point it out to people”, director Jemma Gross says, followed by a shriek of laughter from writer/performer Lucy Roslyn.

The State Vs John Hayes – headlining the King’s Head Theatre’s #Festival45, a new writing festival celebrating its 45 years of theatre – fits Gross’ description as a play that takes its subject, a woman awaiting death after being convicted for murder, and deconstructs it on stage.

The one-act show, written and performed by Roslyn, explores how a person could respond and react to life events – in this case based on the real-life killer Elyese Dukie, who faced the death sentence for two murders, but believed that part of the responsibility lay with John Hayes, her alter-ego.

The Epsilon Production, previously directed by Richard Warren, was offered to Gross when Warren left, a “natural move” after she and Roslyn had worked together on Chicken Shop, Anna Jordan’s play about parenting and sexual exploitation.

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“It’s a weird experience for me when there’s already been a director involved,” Gross admits, “but it’s about being sensitive to the fact that somebody helped get it to its great place to begin with. Seeing it from a completely new perspective, asking new questions of Lucy as a writer, asking new questions of her as a performer, has led to new discoveries of the character itself.”

For her character study, Roslyn undertook extensive research, from everyone’s perspective, into killers.

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And the statistics are very clear – murder is a very male crime. Women are labelled as either mad, bad, or a victim, by both the criminal justice system and society. Symbiotic to labelling women who kill in this way is the denial of their agency. If you’re a female killer, we’re looking for a reason – you must have been abused in your childhood – and then you’re given a fantastical title and branded as sexy if you’re even remotely attractive.

“There is this belief that femininity is so strong in women that being a killer goes completely against inherent god-given nature,” Gross comments. “People don’t like this idea of not being able to fit us into mother/wife/daughter/victim category – if you’re not one of those then you need to be placed somewhere else.”

Roslyn adds: “That was one of the things I tried to do with the play. You couldn’t somehow put her into one of the categories.”

Both Gross and Roslyn wanted to avoid making the death penalty the subject matter on stage, and by association critiquing the American justice and legal system.

“If it was about the death penalty I would have gone at it completely differently, it would have been about other people’s inputs, not one person’s outlook. She talks about other people in her life and gives us what they say to her, but it’s always from her perspective.”

Will the duo continue to work together? “I’m working on plays with Lucy now,”

Gross confesses. “We haven’t officially confirmed it yet…so I guess this is an official comment!”

The State vs John Hayes runs until November 22 at the King’s Head Theatre. Visit

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