Pornography is a show as complicated and erratic as the Tube map on which it’s metaphorically performed. Set against a successful Olympic bid and the tragedy of 7/7, Pornography offers guttural glimpses into the banal eccentricities and criminal atrocities of the ordinary London citizen. The play’s structure consists of a web of interlaced monologues and dialogues, punctuated by a list of those killed in the July attacks. It goes below the belt and presents how screwed we all really are, with brief moments of laughter and kindness only serving to heighten the twisted nature of the characters’, and our own, lives. Careful staging, solid direction, and some stellar performances carried off this decidedly difficult production.
Of particular notice was Suzanna Swanson-Johnson, who played a neurotic octogenarian who gives the audience its first moments of comic relief. With the help of some excellent blocking and dramatic choices, Swanson-Johnson was a magnetic force on stage. This POV-porn-watching, husband-grieving, batty woman in search of nothing but kindness, decency, and a spot of barbecue proved sympathetic and relatable.
Other than Swanson-Johnson, Coco Claxton and Peter Swallow gave laudable performances for their tricky roles. Claxton played the postpartum depressive wife that’s as frazzled as her frizzed, unkempt hair; Swallow, cast as the post-pubescent school boy who longs for nothing more than a simple screw and a spot of racial purity in the world, gave a performance with more angst than a tweenage production of Spring Awakening. Despite the decidedly cringeworthy moments within Swallow’s monologue, the almost playful way he jumped between disenchanted citizen, maladjusted youth, and physically abused boy helped make Pornography successful.
The more problematic areas of the show were seen when it departed too far from believability and simply aimed for discomfort. In particular, the dialogue between two recently reunited siblings was arguably the most difficult to watch. Issues of incest, prostitution, familial abuse, and voyeurism deserve discussion, but tepid, austere performances and forced apathetic interactions created an atmosphere bordering on sexual sociopathy, not the disturbing relatability that carried the remainder of the show.
The stage was starkly set with dangling images of London above a floor-sized map of the Underground. I felt just as claustrophobic as a morning commuter when the entire cast periodically milled about the stage, bustling over the stops and under the pictures. The lighting remained white and sterile for most of the play, only breaking in tone to colour the cataloguing of the dead or to shade an anonymous bomber. The music was similarly sparse, heard only between scenes like periodic news updates. Apart from the brief clips of a BBC soundtrack, the only bit of sound-engineering I remember could be described as cliché, yet still made this reviewer’s seat-neighbour breathlessly whisper “Jesus Christ!” Despite its triteness, it was well-deserved.
When sets are minimal and scenes brief, the costume and make-up of a character is vital, and on this front Pornography struck an interesting balance. Characters with ostensibly more shocking habits (i.e. incest and rape) could have been mistaken for another member of the audience: jeans, a hoodie, a bit of blush and mildly combed hair. Those with more relatable neuroses (i.e. senility, stress) had the liberty to look more unusual, apart from those in recognizably costumed wardrobes and painted faces. Whether the normality of dress in the more uncomfortable scenes was enough to bridge the gap between being distant and being gut-wrenchingly relatable is uncertain, but it at least pointed the audience in the right direction.
The discomfort and sickening pleasure obtained from telling others that they’re going to see Pornography is matched only by actually watching it. It’s incredibly awkward to watch with other people in the room, hauntingly beautiful to look at, enjoyable enough to squirm in your seat for, and unsatisfying to finish. The aptly titled show portrays the shards of life we often refuse to acknowledge but still know to exist. Leaving ends untied and characters ephemerally developed, if you leave the theatre sated and unwilling to go back for more, you’ve never really watched Pornography.
Photo credit: Katie Brennan