National Theatre, Dorfman – until 27 April 2019
If we accept that people are widely diverse, we have to accept that paedophiles are too. Not all the same identi-monster. Moreover, if their horrifying actions pose us questions we need to think very clearly about answers. If Bruce Norris’ disruptive, thoughtful play for Steppenwolf of Chicago does nothing else it hammers that home.
It is set in a group-home for released (but tagged and restricted) sex offenders, somewhere in Illinois. Here is Fred, Francis Guinan as a gentle Chopin-loving old chap in a wheelchair who used to teach piano. He is confronted after 30 years, in a painful, funny, startling opening scene, by a former victim Andy. Who has come with a rather pushy wife and wants a “reconciliation contract” and to inform him to his face, awkwardly from a written script, “You are a fundamentally evil person”.
Fred, disarmingly, just says it’s real nice to see him again, and protests mildly that he admitted his crimes years ago in court. Meanwhile distractingly for poor Andy, the housemates wander through, in from shopping or arguing about the lavatory. One by one, we will learn their backgrounds too. Gio (Glenn Davis) is mouthy, bible-spouting, and slightly delusional about his business future after doing a course in jail. He’s furious at being in with these ‘grade 3 pederast motherfuckers’ because all he did was sleep with a girl who, he says, lied about her age.
Felix is Latino, dimly angry, and doesn’t see why he can’t contact the daughter he abused at 13. Dee, perfectly rendered by K Todd Freeman, is slightly camp and self-consciously well-educated (“Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”), and we find that his crime was, in his view, mutual love with a teenage Lost Boy in a touring Peter Pan where he was dance-captain. Unlike Gio And Felix he isn’t working because hell, “the job market is limited for the elderly black homosexual ex-convict”. His care of old Fred – wheelchair-bound after a savage prison assault – is sweetly exemplary.
Four different men, meticulously acted and wholly credible but in no way excused. For at the heart of the piece, wonderfully realized, is Cecilia Noble as the big tough black probation officer, gun tucked under her shapeless cardigan. She comes in to inform them of more restrictions on their tag-limits, meeting great and very non-PC protests about getting cut off from the better food shops and the “retarded school” being beyond six lanes of elevated highway. It is she – chiefly in a long confrontation with Felix, but with the others as they flit through the second act – who makes clear their various denials and conflicts. Felix just expresses dim rage; others make you stop and gasp at apparent reasonablenss, as with Dee’s barrack-room-lawyerly argument that while some US states tried to bring in a death penalty for child sex offences, they didn’t do so for GBH, so why (forgive my quoting this one) is it not death for chopping off a child’s penis but death for sucking it?
The probation officer, with a caseload of 47 such men, attempts patience and a little tolerance (really, Gio should not be bringing in his defiant, gum-chewing trailer-trash workmate – a very funny cameo from Aimee Lou Wood). But as she says exasperatedly, in her line of work “everyone’s a victim, the system’s broken, the system’s not fair…hey, if y’all are so victimized, maybe you can see how you made other people feel?”
Andy’s return and more eloquently painful rage at old Fred – ending in chaos – underlines that too. But Norris is fly enough to give us a moment to wonder about how necessary, for how many decades, Andy’s pain is, and how reliable his detailed memory. The audience shivers at that.
Norris’ wonderful Clybourne Park ten years ago crossed boundaries of the unsayable in matters of race, class and sexuality, and gave us a famous snowstorm of mutual offence in the second act. Now he takes it further across the boundaries, and he is right because the resultis both brilliant and necessary. We do not have the American system of an open register of ex-offenders and their addresses, and I doubt many of our probation officers are quite like Ivy (she sees through every lie, a fierce Momma to the lying Felix). But very distancing that this setting brings, as we sit in the civilized Dorfman, is oddly useful in helping us to think more widely. What do we do with these guys? When, if ever, can we trust them in the open? Can they ever convince us that, short of a broken back and a wheelchair like old Fred, they are safe?
box office 020 7452 3000 nationaltheatre.org.uk To 27 April