The 20th century was in many ways the birth of photojournalism. Whereas hundreds of years ago the reporting of wars and conflicts was the preserve of newspapers, photography was able to show in the latter half of the 20th century – without censorship – the true face of human suffering in places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and El Salvador. Photography has also served a dark purpose – especially for autocratic states keeping tabs on people and document ‘subversives’. Anyone deemed ‘dangerous’ or found ‘guilty’ of ‘crimes’ would automatically ‘draw the gaze of the lens’.
In S-27, playwright Sarah Grochala has interwoven these various threads into a ‘fictional’ narrative, that nevertheless has the ring of truth to it. Following a war, the regime documents a cross-section of people who it views with suspicion. It’s the duty of May (Pippa Nixon) to take their photograph, before they are ushered through a door ‘to the other side’ (very much a ‘Room 101’ vibe). The people she’s introduced to all behave very differently. Some are near catatonic with fear, some are hysterical, while others are numb.
As the photographer, it is May’s emotional arc that carries the most weight in the play. Quite literally a passive observer, her own thoughts and emotions have long been dormant, so that she can ‘function’ in this new reality. But with each ‘sitter’ May meets, cracks in her emotional armour appear – firstly finding empathy with someone she intuitively feels is a kindred spirit, and then later, people she knew from her former existence.
Keeping May ‘on the straight and narrow’ is June (Brooke Kinsella). She handles the ‘sitters’ when they act ‘troublesome’ and deals with the ‘messier’ aspects of keeping things in order. Whatever it takes… June hankers to handle the photographic duties, away from her own ‘brutal’ chores. May knows this, but to allow June access to the camera is to invite her own redundancy, as well as alter the power dynamic with May in charge. While there is no ‘love lost’ between them in the early scenes, their ‘relationship’ becomes much more important later on.
Other pivotal relationships in S-27 include the mother and May’s cousin which are played by Amelia Saberwal. As the mother, Saberwal triggers May’s maternal stirrings and demonstrates what a mother would do to save her child. The role of the cousin though is a catalyst for remembrance, reminding May of her ‘choice’ regarding her sister during the war.
As the ‘boy’, Kate Ward’s character doesn’t elicit much sympathy from May. However, as the ‘girl’, May sees in Ward’s character a mirror image of herself, who in different circumstances could have had a happy future. But rather than protest her ‘innocence’, the girl ‘owns’ her culpability in this Orwellian dystopia. May also notices the girl has been ‘gaslighted’ – letting herself believe that she’s guilty of ‘thoughtcrime’, unconscious that her own actions are an affront to the State.
After any war, officials of the previous regime are often rounded up and ‘face justice’ in private or via a public trial. Jack Pierce’s character is one such person and is the only person in the play who had directly had power previously, and whose actions had consequences for May’s family. Suffice to say contrition or even attrition are absent from both parties.
May (Pippa Nixon) giving a former official (Jack Pierce) a piece of her mind
While Pierce’s character engenders a visceral reaction in May, Col (Tom Reed) has a profound affect on both June and May. As June ‘tortures’ him, we see that there is almost BDSM aspect to her actions, which has greater significance later on. For May, seeing her former lover makes her consider life beyond today and possibly a future. But Col’s revelations also force her to take stock of the man he is now (and herself in the process) and question whether there is any real absolution for actions in wartime, even if war has changed you as a person or faced with impossible choices.
Lovers: May (Pipper Nixon) and Col (Tom Reed)
The actors are well-cast in their respective roles, often exhibiting a duality between words and actions, desire versus survival. In the case of Nixon, her character’s metamorphosis from passive observer to wanting more than ‘existing’ is remarkable – changing by increments, but always truthful.
I concur with critic Lyn Gardner that: “It says a great deal about the systems and structures of new writing in UK theatres that Grochala’s nugget of a play has been lying around for two years unproduced.”
To all the artistic directors out there, let’s have more plays like this that have something to say about the world today.
© Michael Davis 2020
Directed by Stephen Keyworth. Designed by Olivia Altaras. Lighting by Gary Bowman. Sound by David Gregory.
Produced by Sarah Hudson. Presented by Lifeboat in associate with widsith.
Cast: Brooke Kinsella. Pippa Nixon. Jack Pierce. Tom Reed. Amelia Saberwal. Kate Ward.
The video is free to view, and will be available WITHOUT SUBTITLES from the Finborough Theatre YouTube channel.
Available from Tuesday, 1 December 2020 until Sunday, 31 January 2021.
It will be simultaneously available WITH SUBTITLES on Scenesaver.
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