top of page

Review of Kunstler at The White Bear Theatre: A Portrayal Par Excellence

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯🍯

A person in a suit holding an envelope
Jeff McCarthy as William Kunstler from a 2017 production . Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Wait, before we begin, who was William Kunstler? Expand for a quick explainer.

William Kunstler was a figure of immense controversy and undeniable impact in the American legal landscape. Known for his fervent advocacy in some of the most high-profile cases of the 20th century, Kunstler defended clients ranging from the Chicago Seven to inmates during the Attica Prison riot. His career was marked by a steadfast commitment to civil rights, often attracting both admiration and severe criticism. Critics argued that Kunstler's choice to represent notorious figures glamorized criminal behavior and undermined public respect for the law. However, his supporters viewed him as a crucial bulwark against governmental overreach and a protector of underrepresented voices.

The Play: A Vivid Reimagining of Kunstler

A Portrayal Par Excellence

The stage presentation of Kunstler, particularly through Jeff McCarthy's portrayal, captures the essence of this complex figure with a nuanced performance that oscillates between the vulnerabilities of age and the unyielding vigour of a seasoned advocate. McCarthy's Kunstler is not just a character but a compelling storyteller, whose narratives about his significant cases are as engrossing as they are enlightening. Despite the physical limitations indicated by his limp, McCarthy’s Kunstler dances through his tales with infectious enthusiasm, demonstrating that true passion for justice knows no bounds.

Kunstler Cancelled

The play opens with Kunstler preparing for what appears to be a lecture at a law school. Yet, half the campus is outside the room, shouting slogans to "cancel" him and boycott his talk, seemingly because of the cases he has taken on throughout his long, illustrious, and salacious career. The bee finds this backdrop intriguing as it reflects the societal tensions that Kunstler himself often navigated.

Simplicity in Set Design

The set design’s minimalism serves as a perfect backdrop for the dynamic narrative. It's unsophisticated yet effective, allowing McCarthy’s Kunstler the freedom to navigate the stage—from a painful limp to a spirited trot—mirroring the highs and lows of his tumultuous career. This simplicity ensures that the audience’s focus remains squarely on the narrative and the protagonist's compelling dialogue.

Humour and Missed Opportunities

The play incorporates humour to lighten the intense discussions of legal and ethical dilemmas. However, as the bee's dear readers know too well, the bee's sense of humour (or lack thereof) meant the bee found these moments less captivating and wasn't able to laugh at the "right" moments, suggesting that the comedic elements might cater to a more conventional palate. Moreover, the character of the female law student, who serves as the facilitator, represents a significant yet underutilized opportunity. Her interactions with Kunstler could have been leveraged to delve deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of justice and representation. Instead, their exchanges skim the surface, leaving the audience yearning for a robust debate about the implications of denying legal representation to the universally despised.

Reflecting on Legal Ethics and Societal Justice

The bee does not know to what extent the writing was biased in favor of or against the true William Kunstler, but as a philosophical exploration of the legal system and its underlying principles, and of the conception of procedural justice, the bee thought it was a pretty good play.

Reflecting on the ethical boundaries of legal defence, the bee wonders about societal expectations placed on lawyers and the fundamental principles of justice. If every lawyer were to shun controversial cases, what would become of those accused, however unpopular they might be?

[Rant warning] The bee thought the students’ ethical objections to Kunstler in the play were naive and would not stand up to a critical scrutiny without dragging the entire foundations of our criminal justice system through the mud - are the protestors saying that no one should defend criminals? That criminals do not deserve a fair trial or legal representation? Doesn't that amount to a mob trial or a vigilante justice system where the guilt of the individual concerned is predetermined by these people before a jury or judge has pronounced the judgment? Doesn't it violate the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' to prematurely judge those who aren't yet convicted of a crime to have committed said crime? Now you may say that Kunstler represented many people who were later proven guilty, but the guilt wasn't established at the time that Kunstler took on the case and Kunstler's duties ceased the second the case was decided, so it is a logical fallacy to claim that Kunstler represented a criminal. But let's not get caught up in arguments about technicalities and semantics. The bee just wishes, in this play, that Kunstler had brought in the protesting students and asked them to elaborate what sort of justice system they wanted to serve in. If all criminal defence lawyers were to boycott any individual accused of a crime and in need of representation, that what would remain of our justice system? Do these students want their entire cohort to become prosecutors? Then who would they be going up against in court? This is a brand of pseudo-morality that the bee has really come to dislike. Or do they want to only choose cases in which they are convinced of the innocence of the party being represented? In that case, they have presupposed the court verdict even before it's pronounced. Why even become lawyers if you can't respect the courts and the due process of law that's represented therein? [Rant ends...for now]

Protests in the play and real-world criticisms of Kunstler mirror the ongoing debates about the role of defence lawyers. The bee ponders whether the protestors understand the critical role these lawyers play in upholding the integrity of the legal system. By defending those accused of crimes, regardless of public opinion, lawyers ensure that our legal system remains just and that rights are protected, preventing it from becoming a mere formality that rubber-stamps predetermined guilt.

Concluding Thoughts: The Relevance of Kunstler

The play's exploration of William Kunstler’s career is not just a retrospective on a lawyer’s life but a mirror reflecting our own societal and ethical dilemmas. It challenges the audience to consider what justice truly means in a world rife with inequalities and how best to address these issues without compromising the foundational principles of our legal system. For those intrigued by the intricacies of law, the fragility of societal norms, and the perpetual dance between moral judgment and ethical advocacy, this play is an enriching experience. The bee recommends it not just as entertainment but as a catalyst for deep reflection and spirited discussion.

Five stars!


Watched May 2024 at The White Bear Theatre, London.

119 views0 comments


bottom of page