It’s an interesting time to watch a production of Simon Stephens’ 2008 state-of-the-nation play Pornography. Seven years have passed since the London terrorist bombings and awarding of the Olympic games to the city (these two events happened within hours of each other). The games themselves, which wrapped up in August, remain fresh in the memory, as does the attendant chest beating spearheaded by Sebastian Coe and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Stephens’ play, not surprisingly, says far more about the spiritual condition of the city’s inhabitants than did the orgies of kitsch with which the Olympics opened and closed (black cabs, bowler hats, the Spice Girls). It is a play which hints at – though is too clever to spell out – an existential crisis on a national scale.
Through a series of tightly woven and meticulously written mono- and duologues, Pornography introduces a disparate group of characters whose lives are touched by the events of ‘7/7’ – an under pressure businesswoman, an ageing academic, a young incestuous couple, a troubled schoolboy, one of the four terrorists whose rucksack bombs killed themselves and 52 Londoners. The explosions – and the Olympics – drift in and out of these stories, undercurrents rather than driving forces. Each one resonates uniquely.
Director Daniel Clarke, making his State Theatre Company debut, has only a four-strong ensemble at his disposal (Stephens has stated the play can be performed by any number of actors) but makes the most of actors Matt Crook, Carmel Johnson, Ansuya Nathan and Nick Pelomis. Each has to handle multiple accents and ages (and, in Crook and Johnsons’ cases, genders as well!). Each does so with more than enough skill and intensity to illuminate Stephens’ dense, character-driven writing without overpowering it.
The real surprise of Pornography, a play too often erroneously lumped in with the ‘in-yer-face’ movement, is how literate it is. Few plays of the modern era contain so much dialogue which sticks, so many characters who function in a novelistic rather than theatrical sense. Any fears I may have had about the long running time – two hours without interval – were dispelled by the realisation that the roominess of the play works to the advantage of the actors (as opposed to, say, the writer’s ego) in that it allows the ensemble to build rather than outline both the private universes of the individual characters and, as in a tapestry, a larger and more revealing whole.
I have heard that Pornography and its partner production Blasted were made on a shoestring budget, and it just may be that the depleted coffers were a blessing in disguise. The empty stylistic excesses I’ve come to expect from the State Theatre Company are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Pornography has almost the feel of a workshop production – minimal set, onstage costume changes, unfussy blocking. The only gimmick is, refreshingly, simple and effective: four transparent screens which ‘bleed’ towards the play’s denouement. It’s an arresting symbol, one that plays around with the same notions of violence and voyeurism which are behind the play’s title.
There is, I suppose, something like a gimmick of another kind which runs through Pornography but I hesitate to call it that because it’s an exemplary satirical device; all four actors simultaneously explode party poppers whenever the decision to award the Olympics to London is mentioned. The action is robotic rather than celebratory, a biting comment on the kind of forced jollity which always goes on around big public spectacles. There is, perhaps, another function in the poppers too, drawing together the explosions which ripped through the public transport system on 7 July and those which accompanied the London Olympics opening ceremony in the form of fireworks in the same month of this year. Stephens invites us to make connections of this kind throughout Pornography, between the banal and the profound, the local and the global, the disconnection which defines our relationship with terrorism, with sport, with porn.
Whatever one may make of such things, there is no question that – if you’ll forgive the cliché – Pornography weaves a spell. Stephens’ writing dazzles, but so too does this production (I haven’t even mentioned Jason Sweeney’s marvelously nuanced and atmospheric soundscape yet). The play has had remarkably little exposure, thanks in part to the fact that it was first produced in German by Deutsches Schauspielhaus. It feels like the right time to be seeing it, as the dust is settling on the London games and the euphoria begins to flatten out into a sort of muted, smug triumphalism. The play is more than good enough to outlast the immediate impact of the games. I sincerely hope it gets picked up elsewhere, and often.
Pornography is a hard play to pin down but its spirit is one of playfulness and free inquiry in the face of profound uncertainty – absolutely post-modern, anything but doctrinaire. Stephens remains unrepentant about the fact that his play does not directly deal with the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, and rightly so. It is, after all, not a play about terrorism so much as one about how we respond – and do not respond – to increasing levels of alienation in our cities and suburbs in the West. It is a play about the kinds of individual and societal lenses through which we view acts of religious extremism and, indeed, national celebration. Stephens asks us whether everything has become a spectator sport, whether we have become so disengaged as citizens that there is nothing left for us to do but watch as the blood and the confetti falls down all around us.