National Theatre Dorfman, 17th April 2019
Sweat, Shipwreck and now Downstate. Some of the best new plays I have seen this year have come from established US playwrights. Whilst Brits can usually be relied upon to come up with more innovative theatre in terms of subject and form, (well maybe Shipwreck fits that bill), if you want talky, gritty, politicised, soundly structured drama then the American heavyweights fit the bill. I guess it reflects their history, we are currently being treated to a Miller-fest in London, one of the greats, and, socially, culturally and political, the US theatre community has much to comment on right now.
We have more to look forward to later in the year with the world premiere of David Mamet’s latest play Bitter Wheat, a “farce” inspired by the Weinstein scandal, Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s take on the classic American family drama at the Donmar, Fairview at the Young Vic, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Jackie Sibblies Drury and The Starry Messenger from Kenneth Lonergan. Judging from the reviews in the US, (they do go on a bit those Broadway critics – mind you, pot, kettle, black), they are all well worth seeing. And maybe later in the year, or next year, we have Antipodes from the mighty Annie Baker to look forward to at the NT.
Now Bruce Norris is most renowned for his play Clybourne Park from 2010, a kind of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun from 1959, and The Low Road from 2013, which is pretty much at the top of my “you f*ckwit, how did you manage to miss that” list since its premiere at the Royal Court with a cast to die for. Property, race, the contradictions of capitalism, the marginalised. These are the beefy concerns of Mr Norris and many of his peers. And Mr Norris has an advantage in that his work is usually brought to life by the world famous, (well in certain circles), Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
Downstate premiered at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre last year but, having been jointly commissioned by the NT, the company, including our own Cecilia Noble and Aimee Lou Wood, has been preserved for the London premiere. And it shows. This is ensemble acting at its best, and, I assume, the weeks of performance have polished up Mr Norris’s already sparkling dialogue to the jewel we see here. Downstate is not an easy subject to dramatise. Four paedophiles, released from prison but restricted in terms of movement (electronic tags and restriction zones), money, jobs and access to technology by state laws, are sharing a house in downstate Illinois overseen by weary police probation officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble). The elderly Fred (Francis Guinan) is wheelchair bound and the play starts with him listening to the testimony of one of his two victims, Andy (Tim Hopper) accompanied by his wife Em, (Matilda Ziegler). Andy, fresh from a survivors group, is plainly damaged and angry and determined to hear Fred acknowledge the abuse. Fred, who in all respects appears a kindly, almost naive old man, admits the crime but more as a matter of fact than remorse.
Fred is cared for by Dee (K Todd Freeman), a witty, intelligent and acerbic gay man, who still loves the young man, pointedly a Lost Boy in a production of Peter Pan, who was his evident victim. Gio (Glen Davies) is a garrulous younger man who refuses to accept he committed an offence, having had sex with young woman who “lied” about her age and, in breach of the conditions which govern his freedom, has befriended his young co-worker, bolshie Effie (Aimee Lou Wood) . The quartet is completed by Hispanic American Felix (Eddie Torres), who is barred from any contact with his family having abused one of his daughters. Like Gio, he has turned to religion, to atone and deflect.
Bruce Norris has thus created a realistic situation, (the programme offers some vital insights into the way sex offenders are treated in the US after they have nominally served their sentences), and four believable characters who cover the spectrum in terms of offences and the way in which they accept and acknowledge their actions. The play highlights the way in which society seeks to punish and secure revenge for these crimes as well as the debilitating impact on these men of the need to secure “protection” for any future potential recidivism. Punishing offenders for crimes that they have yet to commit is what makes sex offenders a special category of criminal. Which apparently doesn’t work anyway.
The brilliance of Mr Norris’s writing is that, without in any way lessening the impact of the suffering of the victims, Andy continues to play a central, if ambiguous, role throughout, we are asked to see them as sympathetic individuals, not monsters, and to listen to their accounts of what they did and who they are. They all see themselves in some way as victims. The uneasy fact is we start to understand, if never accept, why they would believe this and persist with the self-pity. Some of the bait and switches, and the speechifying, is a little mechanical, and I have still to make up my mind about the ending, but this is forgivable given the drama and dimensionality that it creates. It is not a comfortable watch but it grips from start to finish, and, if ultimately the task of a great playwright is to make you grapple with complex moral issues, without providing definitive answers, whilst still telling a story, then Mr Norris has delivered. It pokes and provokes, with no little humour, and even manages to generate audible audience gasps. That makes it a great play.
Todd Rosenthal’s set, Clint Ramos’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound, are note perfect. We are in the house with the characters. Pam McKinnon, who is the AD of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, is a long time collaborator with Bruce Norris. It shows. The rhythm here is well nigh perfect. And the cast is, as I said, superb. Normally when I say this it actually means one or two members didn’t quite bring the A game that most of their colleagues did. Not here though. Even so, if I had to pick out one performance, it would be K Todd Freeman’s Dee. It is he who has to say most of the unsayable.
I would be surprised if, like Clybourne Park, this doesn’t quickly become a staple, and, whilst I find it hard to believe a future production could match this, it is a play you must see. If only to reflect on how easy it would be to fail when dramatising these issues, (Lucy Prebble has fortunately gone on to bigger and better things since her debut The Sugar Syndrome which addressed a similar subject). Mr Norris is a brave writer, like many of the peers mentioned above. I look forward to seeing more of his work.