National Theatre, Dorfman – until 27 April 2019
Downstate – which tells the story of four men convicted of sex crimes with minors living in a shared house whose existence, such as it is, is interrupted by the appearance of one of the men’s now adult victims – is certainly not a light and fluffy piece. It’s certainly not an easy watch either, far from it. But bloody hell what a show: challenging, visceral, gutsy, complex, gripping, funny (sometimes) and haunting. Co-produced with legendary Chicago company Steppenwolf, this is the sort of big, brave piece that I wish the NT would take a punt on more often.
Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris’ writing in this piece is genuinely astonishing and so, so brave. I’ve read it described elsewhere as a masterpiece and, yep, that’s true also. It is so challenging (I know I’ve said that already) and so thought provoking that I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it yet.
Technically, the punchy, unflinching, bleakly funny script is incredible enough but the questions it asks, and forces us to ask of ourselves, are the real wonder here. Because what this play does, successfully in my view, is ask us to feel if not sympathy then at least empathy for the sex offenders.
In so doing it forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about whether or not we view some people and some crimes as fundamentally unforgivable and what the moral and practical consequences of this are. It also asks searching questions about other ideas of justice, especially notions of rehabilitation, reoffending and whether or not someone is able to move on from their history once they’ve ‘served their time’.
It also, of course, forces us to face up to the reality of sex crimes – acts of which are discussed matter-of-factly, graphically but never sensationally in the course of the play – and their emotional aftermath. The sensitivity of the writing that achieves all of this without ever feeling like some kind of overly long Guardian editorial is a thing of wonder.
One of the ways it’s achieved is through the construction of a cast of completely, believably human characters. The criminals, the victim and his wife, the police and the other ordinary humans that people the play are all equally real, equally flawed and equally sympathetic. The criminals are warm and funny, sometimes, vicious and nasty other times.
The victim is a normal guy, an emotional mess, desperately seeking closure and also vengeance with a spiteful coldness. The policewoman who looks after the house is a bureaucratic nightmare with no time or sympathy for her charges except when she has. Everyone, in other words, is utterly normal. Except they’re not, are they? None of them. The more I think about this play, the more I think that this is the real act of conjuring it pulls off. There are sections of this piece that could be a flatshare comedy but then there are sections that could not be further from that. That it all hangs together into something so profound is a rare magic.
With a play that is so huge in its ambition and impact, the production doesn’t suffer for being relatively understated, which is what is delivered here quite beautifully. Director Pam MacKinnon is clearly 100% sold on what the play is trying to do and understands how special it is. As such, as with so many great pieces of directing, you barely feel her hand on the rudder at all. The play is allowed all the space to breathe that it needs. Todd Rosenthal’s design is naturalistic and low key, though the level of detail in the fake house he’s built is fantastic (and he makes good use of the space too, given this play is on in the Dorfman Theatre with its notoriously piss poor sightlines). The way the whole stage is used, but key bits of it screened off in ways that you barely notice at various points is particularly clever. Adam Silverman’s lighting is used well to show the passage of time and to keep the centre of attention well highlighted. My one quibble with the whole shebang is the use, entirely unessentially, of a real dog in one scene. I’m never super comfortable with real animals being used in the theatre and this instance feels particularly gratuitous.
The human cast on the other paw I have absolutely no complaints about. A blend of mostly original Steppenwolf performers (Steppenwolves?) and some British additions, every single one of them knocks their role out of the park. Let’s be real: these are incredibly demanding parts that I imagine are not fun (though are surely very satisfying) to play. You wouldn’t know it to watch them. In what is surely one of if not the best ensemble in London right now, K Todd Freeman as Dee is an absolute revelation: nuanced, funny and infinitely humane (and, of course, playing a sex offender). I can’t think that I’ve seen a better performance so far this year. Tim Hopper’s surprisingly complex turn as the victim is almost equally strong, as are Francis Guinan and Eddie Torres as two of the other criminals. The latter in particular has relatively few lines in which to tell his story but manages to do so with alarming clarity nonetheless.
Downstate is a remarkable thing. An absolute masterpiece of writing, performed so sensitively and with such bravery. It is, as I’ve said many times, a challenging watch. It will make you cringe, it will make you wince, it will make you cry, it will make you laugh and, more than anything, it will make you think. It is, for my money, an absolute must see. And you’ve only got a few chances left to do so. Book. Tickets. Now.
Downstate is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 27th April.
I sat in M60 in the pit – which is a side on seat, sold as restricted view, but which in this instance offers an amazing close up view of the action – which cost me £28.