Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Theatre Review: Downstate

It was my birthday a couple of Fridays ago and so obviously the following weekend involved muchos theatrical content. The National Theatre backstage tour and Follies afternoon tea were the daytime activities, and hopefully at some point I'll get round to writing something about them because they were great fun, followed by - of course - an actual show. And I think we can all agree that nothing says 'birthday funtimes' like a show about a house full of convicted paedophiles that carries one of the most stressful pre-show content warnings you'll ever read.

Downstate - which tells the story of four men convicted of sex crimes with minors living in a shared house whose existence, such as it is, is interrupted by the appearance of one of the men's now adult victims - is certainly not a light and fluffy piece. It's certainly not an easy watch either, far from it. But bloody hell what a show: challenging, visceral, gutsy, complex, gripping, funny (sometimes) and haunting. Co-produced with legendary Chicago company Steppenwolf, this is the sort of big, brave piece that I wish the NT would take a punt on more often. 

Pulitzer-prize winner Bruce Norris' writing in this piece is genuinely astonishing and so, so brave. I've read it described elsewhere as a masterpiece and, yep, that's true also. It is so challenging (I know I've said that already) and so thought provoking that I'm not sure I've fully processed it yet - about ten days after having seen it. Technically, the punchy, unflinching, bleakly funny script is incredible enough but the questions it asks, and forces us to ask of ourselves, are the real wonder here. Because what this play does, successfully in my view, is ask us to feel if not sympathy then at least empathy for the sex offenders. In so doing it forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about whether or not we view some people and some crimes as fundamentally unforgivable and what the moral and practical consequences of this are. It also asks searching questions about other ideas of justice, especially notions of rehabilitation, reoffending and whether or not someone is able to move on from their history once they've 'served their time'. It also, of course, forces us to face up to the reality of sex crimes - acts of which are discussed matter-of-factly, graphically but never sensationally in the course of the play - and their emotional aftermath. The sensitivity of the writing that achieves all of this without ever feeling like some kind of overly long Guardian editorial is a thing of wonder.

One of the ways it's achieved is through the construction of a cast of completely, believably human characters. The criminals, the victim and his wife, the police and the other ordinary humans that people the play are all equally real, equally flawed and equally sympathetic. The criminals are warm and funny, sometimes, vicious and nasty other times. The victim is a normal guy, an emotional mess, desperately seeking closure and also vengeance with a spiteful coldness. The policewoman who looks after the house is a bureaucratic nightmare with no time or sympathy for her charges except when she has. Everyone, in other words, is utterly normal. Except they're not, are they? None of them. The more I think about this play, the more I think that this is the real act of conjuring it pulls off. There are sections of this piece that could be a flatshare comedy but then there are sections that could not be further from that. That it all hangs together into something so profound is a rare magic.

With a play that is so huge in its ambition and impact, the production doesn't suffer for being relatively understated, which is what is delivered here quite beautifully. Director Pam MacKinnon is clearly 100% sold on what the play is trying to do and understands how special it is. As such, as with so many great pieces of directing, you barely feel her hand on the rudder at all. The play is allowed all the space to breathe that it needs. Todd Rosenthal's design is naturalistic and low key, though the level of detail in the fake house he's built is fantastic (and he makes good use of the space too, given this play is on in the Dorfman Theatre with its notoriously piss poor sightlines). The way the whole stage is used, but key bits of it screened off in ways that you barely notice at various points is particularly clever. Adam Silverman's lighting is used well to show the passage of time and to keep the centre of attention well highlighted. My one quibble with the whole shebang is the use, entirely unessentially, of a real dog in one scene. I'm never super comfortable with real animals being used in the theatre and this instance feels particularly gratuitous.

The human cast on the other paw I have absolutely no complaints about. A blend of mostly original Steppenwolf performers (Steppenwolves?) and some British additions, every single one of them knocks their role out of the park. Let's be real: these are incredibly demanding parts that I imagine are not fun (though are surely very satisfying) to play. You wouldn't know it to watch them. In what is surely one of if not the best ensemble in London right now, K Todd Freeman as Dee is an absolute revelation: nuanced, funny and infinitely humane (and, of course, playing a sex offender). I can't think that I've seen a better performance so far this year. Tim Hopper's surprisingly complex turn as the victim is almost equally strong, as are Francis Guinan and Eddie Torres as two of the other criminals. The latter in particular has relatively few lines in which to tell his story but manages to do so with alarming clarity nonetheless.

Downstate is a remarkable thing. An absolute masterpiece of writing, performed so sensitively and with such bravery. It is, as I've said many times, a challenging watch. It will make you cringe, it will make you wince, it will make you cry, it will make you laugh and, more than anything, it will make you think. It is, for my money, an absolute must see. And you've only got a few chances left to do so. Book. Tickets. Now.

Downstate is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 27th April.

I sat in M60 in the pit - which is a side on seat, sold as restricted view, but which in this instance offers an amazing close up view of the action - which cost me £28.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Theatre Review: Going Through

Is there a sweeter phrase in the specifically British iteration of the English language at the moment than 'I can't remember the last time I thought about Brexit'? Probably true for every other European language for that matter. Honestly, I'm not sure how I'd be surviving this omnishambles of a clusterfuck were it not for copious distractions. The problem is, so few things are sufficiently absorbing and, well, anti-everything that Brexit is that they can manage to distract me anymore.

I have to admit, a play about the realities of unaccompanied child migration translated from French was not something that I expected to serve as much of a distraction either. There are too many words in that description that sound a bit Brexity, don't you think? But oh the joys of being wrong. Because this play about the realities of unaccompanied child migration translated from French is at The Bush Theatre. And we all know that they aren't so good at conforming to anyone's expectations, mine least of all.

Told in both English and sign language (a first for this theatregoer) Going Through, originally Traversee, by Estelle Savasta (translated by Kirsten Hazel Smith) tells the story of child migrant Nour's journey as she leaves behind Youmna, the woman that raised her, and girlhood and heads to Britain (in this production, the precise geography of her journey isn't specified in the text - pleasingly so as it sort of doesn't matter) and womanhood. I hate this word but I can't think of a better one: it's a lovely piece of writing. It's uplifting. It's humane. It's a play that in no way sugar coats Nour's story but equally makes it ultimately full of hope. There is a lingering positivity in every line of the text that is just life affirming. It's a powerful corrective to, well, this *gestures wildly at essentially everything else in the world at the moment*.

More than that, there's a rhythm and a cadence to the writing that makes it feel like a poem; a poem dedicated to the fact that life can be ok, growing up can be ok, people can be ok. Some of the individual lines are absolutely beautiful: "It's not always children's stories that happen to children", "I don't see whose enemy I could be, on the border of two countries I don't know", "I love you like it's not possible". If you fail to get swept up in this writing then I suspect you may be dead inside, frankly. The integration of the sign language fits so beautifully and expressively too. Even for those in the audience (me) who don't know what the signing literally means - and it's not always translated - you will understand what it means because it fits so neatly into the script as a whole (and because the actresses signing are so bloody good, more of which presently).

Director Omar Elerian is a perfect captain for this particularly gorgeous ship (other work at The Bush includes Misty and Nassim so, y'know, he's a goodun and a brave-un). His 75 minute production - a strong contender for the second best phrase in the English language right there - is technically some of the best theatre I've seen in bloody ages. Visually, it's absolutely stunning. To say Rajha Shakiry's design is striking is a level of undersell Theresa May would be proud of. Her set of moving blocks and rolling hills (the latter particularly beautifully constructed and evocative of all kinds of ideas of place and of home) is so clever. Combined with Nina Dunn's superbly effective video design, serving as caption screen, scenery and occasionally even a character in its own right, and Josh Pharo's lighting with its incredible, bold use of shadow, it almost steals the whole show.

The two person cast is equally fantastic (there's no casting director credited as far as I can see but whoever it is has done a cracking job). As Nour, Charmaine Wombwell (who signs and speaks) is heartbreakingly, soul cheeringly compelling with the poise of an absolute boss and a physical expressiveness that I'm sure many actors would kill for. She's exceptional in a piece which the script says can be, and often is, played as a monologue for her. Nadia Nadarajah as Youmna (who signs) also does some really beautiful work too, with her emotive signing and eyes that encompass every human emotion the play demands doing more work than others could do with reams of text.

Overall Going Through is just a beautiful thing. Gorgeous writing, a stonkingly good production and a brilliant cast. 75 minutes of humanity and joy. Highly recommended.

Going Through is at The Bush until 27th April.

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by the theatre. I sat in C11 which would normally cost £20.