There have been three major terrorism attacks in the past decade which significantly cut through to the Australian media, and thus our own dialogues about terrorism. The first, the 9/11 attacks in the USA. The second, the Bali Bombings, targeting Australian tourists. And the third, the London Bombings.
Each year, we notice their anniversaries. Eleven years after 9/11, much of the currency around the discussion of the remembrance focused on the choice of major US newspapers to no longer carry the anniversary as front page news. Ten years on from the Bali Bombings, the event was carried with significance.
The London Bombings perhaps though, held the most currency looking back from 2012. Occurring the day after the announcement the 2012 Olympics would be held in London, the two events would be inextricably linked.
Simon Stephens wrote Pornography in the aftermath of the bombings, in a city which was very much in repair and recovery. His work distills the event down into stories of a handful of people in the week leading up to the event, at the same time almost makes a point of the fact that this bombing was just one day in the lives of people which are frequently full, and complicated, and messy.
The impact of the bombings, the immediacy of the event, the knowledge that these characters lives will now forever be tied up in a narrative of what occurred that day is at the forefront throughout Pornography. Directing the work for the State Theatre Company, Daniel Clarke holds tension throughout the work: relief in humour is short lived, as audience members we are privileged in knowing where the work is taking us. Jason Sweeney’s composition, too, weaved throughout the production, holds the audience on teter-edge.
And yet, the bombing is almost the least important part of the work and the stories. While these characters stories culminate in this event, more pertinently Stephens writes about a fractured England.
The story of a city Stephens paints before the bombings is already deeply hurt and fractured. These stories could just as easily be stories in a city before the London riots, and the work perhaps takes on a new currency after these events. In the aftermath of the bombings, the terrorists responsible for the explosions were expected to be immigrants, or men who had travelled to England specifically for the attacks. The country was rocked in the news that these bombings were taken out by men born and raised in England.
Stephens work almost angrily explores stories of the angry and disassociated, or sad and abandoned, characters in Pornography: the country that produced them implicit as the country that produced the bombers. In 2011, the world watched on as the London Riots occurred and saw the explosion of a society in which primarily young men felt abandoned. The explosion of a society Stephens explores here. While friends of mine in London at the time said they felt the city had become one they couldn’t recognise; in 2012 watching Pornography we can see Stephens speaking of the journey to that point long before it happened. In this way, the bombing is just a cataclysmic event to bring these stories together. A defining event, to be sure, but not the defining event. The damage and the hurt, Stephens postulates, exists in an England long before the event. And, as we are privy, after.
Under Clarke’s direction in particular, too, the emphasis is taken off the bombing and onto the rewarding of the host city. On each mention, Clarke’s actors dissassociativly explode a party popper – while we know London was in celebration, none of these characters are. At best, the award as the host city is a fake frame in which to place happiness; at worst, just another reason for discontent. Viewing the city back through the lens of a successful Olympics is interesting, too: the world was shown a city and a country in repair, and in jubilant celebration. How much of Stephens’ world is still there, hidden behind new sports stadiums and shopping malls?
Looking back now from the other side of the event, on the other side of the world, it is an interesting way to frame the work: our most pertinent image of that city and its people are now that event. And for all of the stories which came out of it which weren’t celebratory, which focused on the negatives coming out of staging such a huge event, the major dialogues were positive, and the world was shown a city and a country in jubilant celebration.
Primarily monologues with some dialogue, Pornography is a verbally dense and heavy show written to be staged with any number of actors. Here, Clarke stages the production with just four, in roles which are frequently race-, gender-, and age-blind. This, perhaps, gives an even greater feeling of the stories being mere snapshots of the stories of many, and while the characters may not be completely specific, they are still drawn completely and fully, performed in ways which are equal parts heart-wrenching and repulsive.
With Clarke’s staging the characters are often alone: their compatriots, their bullies, their family members aren’t staged. During the monologues, the actors speak the lines ancillary characters from behind designer Wendy Todd’s dividing glass screen. Her design simple: an elevated platform in front of the screen, behind that racks of neatly arranged outfits for dozens more characters than we will meet tonight. There, the actors wait when they’re not performing: simultaneously on and off the stage. Occasionally this area is tightly lit by Mark Pennington, minor players in these characters lives standing removed and softly out of focus. The stage, empty to start, builds up with the clutter and debris of these people’s lives, the glass stained with drinks drunk, and then with a slow trickle of blood.
The actors, almost, seem to be in a game of one-upmanship; all give incredibly strong performances, and, in particular the space they are given to play with the air in the room during their monologues produces remarkable moments of theatre: the air heavy with Stephens monologues, punctuated by small moments of theatricality by Clarke.
With the conclusion of the final monologue, Stephens strips away the characters and their presentations. Clarke clears his set: the clothes of the characters we met lie on the stage, and the clothes of dozens more whose stories will go untold are folded and packed away behind the the screen. The actors come out and sit as themselves, talking to their audience, and tell us of those lost in the attacks. Stephens doesn’t give us names. Instead, he gives us short descriptors of the lives these people lived.
These stories, and the stories of Stephens’ characters, make very few grand statements of the people lost and affected. Just the statement that they were, indeed, lost. Almost in defiance to Stephens’ script, Clarke’s ending to the piece is quiet, subtle, and in reverence and respect. In the end, he makes it a story not about a fractured nation, but about one day, and 52 lives.
The State Theatre Company presents Pornography by Simon Stephens. Directed by Daniel Clarke, designed by Wendy Todd, lighting design by Mark Pennington, composition by Jason Sweeney, voice and dialect coach Simon Stollery, movement by Jo Stone. With Matt Crook, Carmel Johnson, Ansuya Nathan and Nick Pelomis. At the Space Theatre until October 27. More information and tickets.
Photos by Sofia Calado.