[this review can be read in any order. It can be read by any number of readers.]
The acting is good. Since Organised Crime Theatre are a young company – mostly still in various universities, friends from school or college, I think – the performances are several notches better than you might cynically believe you have any right to expect. No one is actually bad. A couple of the performers might either do a bit too much acting, or not quite enough, but in general this is a fine ensemble.
Along with Ken Nwosu [see below], special mention should be made of Daisy Bata's “student” and Zoe Templeman-Young's “Sister”. And, sure, there's nothing ickier than a critic more-or-less old enough to be the actress-in-question's father praising their handling of on-stage sexuality, but there it is. Those are two of the more difficult parts in the play, parts which make actual demands of the performer beyond speaking convincingly, and both Bata and Templeman-Young actually did the best job with the parts that I've seen British actresses do (this excludes Sean Holme's UK première). Indeed, Bata might well have been better than the German too (it's harder to compare Templeman-Young's performance with her German counterpart, since he was a large ginger man).
It's just occurred to me that having never reviewed Pornography before, I've never had to try to articulate what I think it does before. Which is strange. I now think of what it does, kind of on a level with what it is.
What it is is a selection of slices of life, some with a tiny bit of bearing on 7/7 – the fictionalised bomber, obviously; but also the racist schoolboy, and all those users of London Transport. The incidents in their lives – with the exception of the bomber – aren't really anything to do with 7/7; they're just some of the people who make up the country, the city, that was attacked. And what they're doing – screwing up their lives, living their lives, getting into silly situations, perhaps morally difficult situations – isn't really anything to do with why four men packed rucksacks full of explosives and chose to detonate them and themselves on three underground trains and a London bus.
Except, of course, putting it all together suggests that there is a sort of connection. Barely any of the characters in the text are explicitly white, Asian, black, Christian or Muslim, and yet, bringing with us what we know of Jihadist/al Qaeda opinions on Western decadence, can we help but conclude that being shown a brother and sister (here played by white actors) drinking themselves into incest isn't a tacit admittance of something? And isn't there a slightly paradoxical purity in the observations of the made-up bomber on his train from Manchester Piccadilly about how grim life can be in those airport towns he's passing through on the way to deliver his made-up bomb to London?
This is the discomfort of the play, perhaps; that disappointed pre-Olympic feeling that Britain is pretty indefensible sometimes. In this way, perhaps the terrorist here has more in common with William Carlisle from Punk Rock and Morning's Stephanie than we might initially imagine.
Watching Simon Stephen's Pornography in the wake of the Olympic Games is strange. Like the last month finally closed off the period that opens this play; the period when London discovered it was going to host the 2012 Olympic Games and the next day suffered the worst ever terrorist attack in its history.
This is, I think, the fourth production of Pornography I've seen (German World Première dir. Sebastian Nübling, and two other student productions – one here in Edinburgh last year and another at NSDF'11. None of which I've ever formally reviewed, stupidly). But it still feels as much like I'm seeing a totally new play and an old, familiar one, every time I see it.
In case you've never seen or read Pornography, it's a collection of monologues and duos set roughly in and around the few days leading up to 7/7, which, if you remember, includes Live 8 on 2/7. This production opens with a vignette of commuters on the underground, their respective iPods playing over the theatre's PA, a small cacophony of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb, and other tracks played that day.
At the start of the text there's an author's note that says “This play can be performed by any number of actors. It can be performed in any order”.
Annoyingly, I don't have my copy of Pornography with me here and, as the author's note suggests, seeing previous productions doesn't really help in terms of knowing the script, so in a lot of ways it's very difficult to offer a precise analysis of what Organised Crime Theatre have done here.
They've definitely cut one scene – the scene in which an old lady walks (from Bloomsbury, I think) and asks for some chicken at a random strangers house.
The rest, well, I think they've changed the order of the scenes, and possibly trimmed them a bit (but that might be down to other previous versions being stuck in my head, or my wrong-recollections of the running order) but aside from that this is pretty much 6/7ths of full-text. Either that, or they have left the running order entirely alone – actually, where is the “bomber” monologue in the script of Pornography? Here it's 5/6 and the end is intercut with 6/6 – the 52 almost Tweet-length two sentence character descriptions of, we assume, the 52 London Transport passengers who were killed on 7/7.
There is a brief moment, where it looks like the bomber – an outstanding performance by Ken Nwosu – looks like he's been directed to tip over into “a maniacal laugh” - but then we realise that it's an echo of perhaps the most noticeably recurrent bit of text in the play – certainly in this performance – the bit where someone says they can't tell if they, or someone else, is laughing or crying. It crops up in a few of the pieces.
Other motifs crop up again, stuff about licking food off fingers, mentions of Bloomsbury, Research and Development, and final polishes. Coldplay, Madonna, Snoop Dogg at Live 8. These are supplemented by visual motifs – the production's main design feature is multiple deployment of copies of the Metro newspaper, variously held round the heads of non-speaking actors standing in as illustrative bodies in monologues, and used as chip paper or restaurant menus; there's even a baby made out of Metro-mâché.
Until recently, in MSM criticism it has been standard practice when reviewing “New Writing” to talk mostly about the play, and to attribute most of the production to the playwright, with a namecheck for directors and a note that “the acting is good”.
However, with the advent of something I'm provisionally going to call The Open Text, that has all shifted slightly.
If there's one really live debate in Edinburgh this year – at least amongst the critics and theatre-makers I know – its been around how we talk and write about work that doesn't conform to what's perceived as the +standard+ writer-unto-director-unto-actors-unto-audience model of transmission. And also, how to acknowledge that even in the above-sketched model, it has perhaps never been as simple as all that anyway.
I have no idea what the first text was that didn't name any characters. It was almost certainly an idea in play in Germany before it was brought to Britain; a logical extension of the way that German directors were partitioning text and ascribing it to various speakers or choruses in order to present it in a way that made sense to them – often centuries down the line from when it was written.
The first British example of which I'm aware is Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, which simply uses a dash to indicate when a new character starts speaking. Since then Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, Martin Crimp's Fewer Emergenies, Mark Ravenhill's pool (no water) and obviously Stephens's own Pornography have become other prominent examples.
It's perhaps significant that I've also seen more revivals of these shows since their British premieres than any other New Writing. More even than previous student-theatre extant-script go-to standards like Beckett and Pinter. Which I think says rather a lot.
What is most interesting about the chance to re-see these plays is the extent to which different productions make it feel like you are seeing the play, the text, for the first time.
Images of criticism. They are silent.