November 01, 2012

Notes from Underground: Pornography

November 1, 2012

Notes from Underground

by Simon Stephens
State Theatre Company
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
October 27.  Season October 18 – 27. 2012

On July 7th 2005 four young men, three of Pakistani descent, one Jamaican, all aged between 18 and 30, drove from Leeds down to Luton where they caught a train connecting to the London Underground into the city. At 8.50am, three of them triggered suicide bomb devices in their backpacks and caused mayhem and lethal destruction on the Circle and Piccadilly Lines. An hour later a fourth bomb destroyed a No 30 double-decker bus. In all, 56 people died (including the bombers) and 700 people were injured, many seriously.

7/7 became the UK’s 9/11 and Simon Stephens’ play Pornography, first performed by the Traverse  Theatre in 2008,  is a response to those events. It is an intriguing play because of its indirect, often oblique, treatment of its subject. It is a series of monologues and dialogues set on and around the fateful day. Each reveals some covert taboo, an admission of transgression, an impulse with ruinous consequences. Each also expresses a surface optimism: for the sunny day, for the celebrity fundraiser Live 8 the day before, for the fact that London would host the Olympics in 2012. But over each hovers a kind of dread, a sense of being adrift and alienated from the life of the giant metropolis, of irreversible bad faith and desperate loneliness.

State Theatre’s now departed Artistic Director, Adam Cook chose Pornography as a repertory pair to Sarah Kane’s nihilistic hell chronicle, Blasted – and indeed the titles of the two plays could be interchangeable. Stephens’ play is the better one, though, both in its reach and the opportunities it gives its actors. Some of it  resembles the discontinuous narratives of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on a Life, or closer to home, the thematic and verbal repetitions and the lantana enmeshment of Andrew Bovell’s work.

Director Daniel Clarke has taken this elliptical text and, with an outstanding cast, has shaped it into an excellent production. Wendy Todd’s set, using a series of large translucent screens and a broad, two-step apron stage is ably complemented by Mark Pennington’s sometimes forensic, sometimes ambiguous lighting. Behind the screens, a long rack of clothes forms a shadowy arc around the back of the stage where the actors select, put on and discard costume as casually as they step in and out of roles. The clothes racks also suggest straphangers in tube carriages, a huge crowd of commuters oblivious to impending danger. Jason Sweeney’s subliminal soundscape underscores the pathos and bewilderment of the characters and he uses Eno-like trickling piano and total silence with equally hypnotic effect.

The performances are excellent. Stephens doesn’t name his characters, nor is he fussed in what order the monologues are delivered. Clarke uses this license to good effect – most notably when Matt Crook and Carmel Johnson cross dress and gender to play a scene where  a burnt-out male academic meets up with a former student, a young woman now embarked on an academic career herself. The performances are admirably understated,  neither tempted by caricature nor burlesque, and the effect is startling.

As a young mother, frazzled by her hectoring boss and a work deadline to complete a confidential tender submission, Ansuya Nathan brings memorable precision to a commonplace workplace frustration and adds a gnawing tension when she describes deliberately faxing the document details to a rival firm. Nathan also features in the dialogue – with the accomplished Nick Pelomis – where an estranged  brother and sister reunite and drunkenly descend into incestuous intimacy. In this play, compulsions take various forms : Carmel Johnson also plays a retired researcher who, in her anxious isolation, is drawn to online pornography as if through a portal to a  forbidden community.

The most dissociated monologue is Nick Pelomis’ account of the  mundane details of a suicide bomber’s last morning on earth. It is not a revelation of motivation, or justification – although he casually refers to taking a bomb to the depressed suburbs of the South Midlands. Rather, it is a typical account of a commuter reveling in his anonymity as pushes through the crowd with a backpack full of explosive  – which he made from huge amounts of peroxide and nail varnish remover bought from Boots the chemist, on the pretext that he was a runner for a movie production company.

In his program notes Daniel Clarke describes how the disenfranchised and the isolated “feel they have to transgress in order to connect”. “How much blood do we collectively have on our hands when we objectify the people around us …” he asks. This, presumably, is the reason why Simon Stephens has called his play Pornography. But it is an awkward philosophical construct and despite the play’s concluding tribute to each of the bomb victims (not by name, but by some attribute or personal detail) I feel the text is cut too far adrift from the historical moment of 7/7.

The suicide bomber’s narrative is of a different order from Matt Crook’s Jason, the racist teenager, or the drunken lecturer making a menacing sexual advance on his former pupil. They may possibly be on the same spectrum, but it is quite a stretch – ultimately, they are very distant. Stephens’ portraits are like those in T S Eliot’s London poem The Waste Land – “I had not thought death had undone so many.”  They are the living, and the partly living. But the terrorists are organized and motivated by much more specific influences – and in their actions they are starkly different from the citizenry they violated.

Pornography is nonetheless an engrossing play – and this engaging  production has made sure of that. The fact that Stephens presents us with a series of moral non-sequiturs is problematic,  but it also means that the play troubles, intrigues and insinuates itself long after we leave the theatre. These are latter-day Notes from Underground and, like the recorded announcements at tube stations, they remind us to mind the gap.


Murray Bramwell

Written for, November 1, 2012.

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