3 stars ***
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
IN A FRINGE OPENING WEEK haunted by images of catastrophe, both historic and yet to come, it’s hardly surprising to find the two headline in-house productions at the Traverse Theatre striving, in different ways, to create images of societies in meltdown. Zinnie Harris’s new play Fall – the third in a trilogy originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company – is set in a nameless nation struggling to emerge from a recent, devastating civil war; and it represents a relentlessly austere two-and-half-hour effort to imagine a landscape full of recognisable human beings, but also of such howling pain and irredeemable wickedness that it seems utterly devoid of real hope, and therefore of much drama.
The play opens as a recently-widowed woman visits the cell of an indicted war criminal who, she believes, knows more than she does about the past life of her husband; then it moves on to the bunker-like residence of the once-liberal politician chosen as an acceptable public face by the hard men behind the new regime. The drama is supposed to revolve around the burningly topical issue of whether or not the war criminal should be executed, alongside others, as a bloody act of public vengeance and catharsis following the war; and the final half-hour of the play, when Harris finally tightens her focus on the real political and moral content of this question, briefly blazes with a much stronger theatrical energy, as if this is the point at which the drama should really have started.
For most of its length, though, the play seems distracted by a series of painful and not entirely successful attempts to imagine the absolute depths of misery and brutalism to which human beings trapped in a post-civil-war world might descend. Played out on a slightly cumbersome grey-toned set by Tom Piper, full of huge, laborious sliding screens, Dominic Hill’s production is full of a steady artistic integrity, and achieves a kind of grim, slow momentum that is often impressive; and the seven-strong cast do their best to achieve some real traction on the characters. But in the end, for all its evident good intentions, Fall seems more like a long, earnest, well-written, slightly shapeless poem about the imagined dark aftermath of war, than any kind of drama; and its lack of real theatrical life tends to diminish its impact.
For all its flaws, Fall at least represents a whole-hearted attempt to understand catastrophe by imagining a complete fictional world in which such events have taken place. The problem with Simon Stephens’s eagerly-anticipated new show Pornography, by contrast, is that it tries to deal with a vibrantly specific and horrific event – the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, and the euphoric summer days of Live 8 and Olympic-bid celebration that preceded them – through a pseudo-documentary format that lacks both the full imaginative commitment of sustained fiction, and the authority of the documentary verbatim drama it so much resembles in style.
At the opening of the play, Stephens briskly assembles a cast of eight characters, designed to offer a kind of microcosm of England at the moment of the bombings. One of them is a bomber, making his way south from Yorkshire with his lethal back-pack; the others are a range of characters apparently designed, in the bluntest sense, to demonstrate why our sexually disordered society deserves to be blown to kingdom come. One is a desperately lonely old lady, who perhaps studies pornography for her uncaring academic boss, perhaps simply enjoys watching it; others are involved in various mild or blatant forms of incest, corrupt sexual games-playing, routine workplace bullying, and mental or physical violence.
Sean Holmes’s production for the Traverse and Birmingham Rep is full of high energy and professionalism, with Sheila Reid as the old lady, and Frances Ashman as a disaffected woman worker, in in particularly forceful and intelligent form. In the end, though Stephens’s bite-sized pieces of fiction fail to convince, often drifting between gratuitous social self-flagellation, and a weirdly lightweight, polite-social-comedy tone. His portrayal of the bomber, in particular, carries no weight or conviction at all; and if this play is intended – as Stephens has suggested – as a serious exploration of the bombers’ motives, as four British men driven to attack the very heart of the society that raised them, then it hardly even makes a start on that vital task.
Until 24 August