Throughout 2020, the pint-sized Finborough Theatre in West London punched well above its weight by releasing a whole tranche of videos of past productions at roughly the rate of one a month. And to ensure that their offerings were more accessible than many others, most of the releases were properly subtitled and released through the Scenesaver platform. The latest of these videos was put up online before Christmas, but with so much else going on it has had to sit on my personal back burner for a while. The play comes from way back in 2009 and is the mysteriously titled S-27 by Sarah Grochala.
Inspired by and based on the experiences of photographer Nhem En, this is a bleak dystopian tale about oppression and how, even when emotions are subordinated, they still find a way of breaking through. En was responsible for photographing the inmates of Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia (designated S-21) during the reign of terror of the infamous Khmer Rouge.
In Grochala’s play we have the fictional character of May, an apparently fanatical follower of the faceless Organisation who has even disposed of her own sister in a bid to keep the new authorities looking elsewhere for scapegoats. Routinely she photographs dissidents and other criminals before they disappear through a door never to return.
At first, she appears inscrutable and it cannot be divined whether or not her work gives her any satisfaction or whether she loathes the whole process. What is clear is that her unidentified employers give her a degree of immunity and a modicum of food and shelter which is unavailable generally. And then the cracks begin to appear. It becomes evident that she knows some of the figures she is photographing, for instance the town’s ex police chief with whom she can deal dispassionately. Then a mother and baby followed by someone she sees as a kindred spirit increasingly come to invade her very soul until finally, she is faced with an ex-lover. This proves too much for May and her resolve crumbles.
And then there’s the problem of her assistant the equally sunnily (and ironically) named June who clearly has designs on May’s job but is kept in her place by being given the demeaning tasks to do, particularly acting as an enforcer if May encounters resistance. Both women are degraded by their actions and although there may be mutual understanding, there is no love lost. The appearance of Col, the ex-lover, proves to be a turning point for them both as the balance of power shifts and May finds herself on the receiving end of the terror she was previously supporting. Although this may be a tad predictable as an outcome the final scene between May and June crackles with tension as they play out their deadly game.
Pippa Nixon and Brooke Kinsella are both excellent in their roles; Nixon, in particular, pulls the audience with her into May’s journey out of darkness and back again. The pair are working in a small intimate space and often circle each other warily and the camera gets in close enough to let us see the whites of their plainly terrified eyes. Whether as abuser or victim these are clearly souls in torment. The other four members of the cast play the unfortunate prisoners with a particularly effective contribution coming from Amelia Saberwal as a mother prepared to go to any lengths to save her child and as May’s cousin. Stephen Keyworth directs with a sense of passion and integrity and the swift 70 minute running time ensures that the pace isn’t allowed to flag.
Grochala’s writing put me in mind of some of Pinter’s later work as he turned his eye to wider political concerns – or was that just because I’d been watching a Pinter drama the day before? It has a spare economy to it which allows the actors to find significant moments between the spoken dialogue. Given the subject matter, it is little wonder that the piece won the iceandfire/Amnesty International Playwriting Competition for 2007. The Finborough are to be congratulated for delving back and finding a thought-provoking piece to release and extend its winning run of past triumphs. Let’s hope there’s plenty more to come until we can emerge, blinking into the sunlight.