Pornography

Tue 18th – Sat 22nd October 2011

reviews

Joshua Phillips

at 01:52 on 19th Oct 2011

2agrees

0disagrees

London in July 2005. The week of the G8 Summit and Live 8; the week when London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics; the week when four bombs were detonated in the London Underground, early one otherwise nondescript Thursday, killing 52 people.

Pornography depicts an extraordinary week through the eyes of ordinary people: a young mother trapped between a loveless marriage and an all-consuming job, with only her baby to keep her sane; a cynical youth whose dark, cynical comedy hides an destructive monomania and, most disturbingly, one of the 7/7 bombers, whose bleak nihilism becomes terrifyingly understandable. All of these disparate personalities are cast against a vigorous, organic backdrop: that of London itself, and it is this backdrop, which provides the points around which the semblance of a narrative can begin to be woven.

There is no overarching narrative, no grand scheme present in Pornography: each character, or set of characters, is presented in a series of disjointed vignettes displaced by one another to form a claustrophobic, jumbled and frankly marvellous snapshots into the lives of ordinary people. Hence, the audience is subjected to the rapid-fire succession of, among other things, a brother and sister’s incestuous love, the monomaniacal stalking of a school-teacher by a besotted teenager and the loveless marriage of a young mother to a man who refuses even to speak to her.

It is not only the structure of the play that makes it a claustrophobic affair, but a sense of disjunction between the characters: whilst some tenuous relations are present between characters in different narratives, they never interact. Moreover, each narrative in itself is terse, with Stephen’s script leaving silences to say as much as, if not more than, dialogue; indeed, most of the narratives tend to be little more than extended soliloquys, leaving one with a sense of disjunction between the play’s depiction of a city which houses over seven million people, and the crushing sense of loneliness with which each individual character is imbued.

As one might expect from the title, Pornography is frank in its discussion of taboo, taking in its breadth an incestuous relationship, sexual assault, racism and the spectre of the 7/7 bombings. However, as frank as it may be, the play is also mature: this incestuous relationship between the brother and sister is as close as any of the Londoners come to a normal, loving relationship, and Stephen’s treatment of the 7/7 bomber’s narrative manages, admirably, to avoid discussing politics or religion, opting instead to attempt to come to an understanding of a man who is disgusted with life and the business of living.

Pornography is a play that aims to discomfort, to unsettle and to shine a light onto the urban malaise, and in doing so, it is eminently successful: it is not light entertainment, rather a play which will leave an audience deep in thought.

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Sara Pridgeon

at 08:47 on 19th Oct 2011

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0disagrees

Simon Stephens’ Pornography, brought to the BT stage by director Joe Murphy, interweaves the lives of seven Londoners during one week in July 2005. At the beginning of the play, everything was confusing, hazy – it was difficult to understand fully what the characters were talking about, to put the pieces together. Over the course of the ninety-minute production, the characters bring each other into focus, completing each other’s stories to produce an alarmingly real portrait of London in the days leading up to the 7/7 bombings. The events of that week – Live 8, the 2012 Olympics – tie both the lives of these strangers and the play itself together, something that only slowly becomes apparent. The disorientating presentation of these various lives as puzzle pieces of the whole is extremely effective, because it mirrors the experience of London, of urban life.

After presenting the characters waiting on a subway platform – foreshadowing the play’s final scenes – Pornography opened to a young mother (Chloe Orrock) sharing a relatively standard story: her thoughts about her son, and a description of her morning. It is her delivery of these opening lines that is noteworthy, that draws us in. Orrock’s character is very personable, but it is almost immediately clear that she is also very much on the edge – in each quick gasp for breath, in the errant shifts of tone we see that she is barely holding herself together. She is left onstage as Jason (Chris Greenwood) enters, sitting in her living room. Though the area is unlit and she sits still, with a dazed, almost vacant, expression on her face, we are still aware of her presence – from the beginning of the play, lives overlap. Jason was an audience favourite; while I initially found him to be exaggerated, more of a caricature than a person, Greenwood’s performance quickly convinced me otherwise. He was hilarious – and this masked the more disturbing undertones to his words and actions so that we did not realize their full weight, their actual severity until the absolute last minute, until his actions and thoughts became too violent and deranged to ignore.

Though these two performances stood out in my mind, the production benefited from a uniformly strong cast. The dynamic between the brother (Max Gill) and the sister (Charlotte Salkind) was very interesting to watch – they left me entirely conflicted. Gill was particularly able to convey emotions through his facial expressions, his body language; throughout the course of the play I found myself wanting to know more about the brother, to know what else he wasn’t saying as he went along with his sister’s desires. Gill was not alone in his use of silence – in fact, this was, to me, what was most striking about the cast as a whole. Each of the actors used silence – their pauses, their vacant, almost traumatized expression, what they left unsaid – to convey just as much as they did with their words.

By the time Tim Kiely took the stage, it was clear that he was, by default, the bomber – but this knowledge was at times hard to reconcile with what we saw on stage. Though horrified, I did not react to him with the hatred or disgust I had been expecting. He was complex; many of his comments were startlingly sane. He spoke about carpooling, about the obesity epidemic, about wanting (one last, I couldn’t help but add in my mind) almond croissant. It was as if he wanted someone to stop him – of course, no one did.

At times, the technical aspects of the production were not as polished as they could have been. The scene changes and lighting were uneven; lighting cues didn’t always quite match the action and the scene changes, which left these transitions rougher than they should have been. Because of the nature of the staging – in having characters remain onstage while other storylines were pursued – this did not detract as significantly as it could have. That having been said, the lighting was, at times, very well conceived – the use of shadow against the black walls of the Burton Taylor was excellent, heightening the impact of especially dramatic moments. The set deserves mention, as it was simple and worked very well – having three rooms claimed by all of the characters as their own drew their lives closer together, reiterated their interconnectivity.

There are simply too many aspects of Murphy’s production of Pornography to highlight, and I urge you all to make time to see it. This cast and production team takes Stephens’ powerful script and truly brings it to life. Pornography was a fantastic start to this term’s student theatre, and is not a production to miss.

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Comments

Xandra Burns; 21st Oct 2011; 23:41:20

Joshua Phillips and Sara Pridgeon bring clarity to some points that I missed upon seeing "Pornography," most notably Sara's identification of the actors waiting on the train platform in the beginning - completely missed that.

Joshua identifies the feel of the play - "claustrophobic" - expressed by the overlapping characters and scenes, and significant because of its relation to the nature of the bombings.

While it is clear that the aim is to bring all of the stories together to, as Sara says, "produce an alarmingly real portrait of London," the play doesn't quite succeed in uniting all of the stories. I was waiting for a moment when they all came together, or at least made sense alongside each other, but struggled to find it. Perhaps these moments could be assisted by more precise lighting and technical transitions. In particular Chloe Orrock's character seemed out of place, and didn't progress as much as the others. I agree completely with Sara's assessment of Chris Greenwood and his character - he starts out as comic relief, but you don't take him seriously until he becomes seriously dark.

The most fascinating part of the play is the incestuous brother sister pair played convincingly by Max Gill and Charlotte Salkind. This plot line could be its own play, and I too wish it could have been expanded upon.

If there is anything that unites the characters it is Tim Kiely's soliloquies in the end - as soon as we realize the setting of the play, we expect the bombing to be addressed in some way, just not by such a human character - I found myself nearly sympathizing with him, calling attention to how I nearly sympathized with other characters doing slightly wrong things (though none as drastic as the bomber's "wrong things" of course) and to how each of the characters are united in their isolation. However, this sense of unity does not work throughout.

My main problem with "Pornography" is that it feels consciously theatrical - trying to be funny, trying to be edgy, trying to be poignant. And at times it succeeds. But when it doesn't, the attempts distract from the world of the play.

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