first night


Carrie Gaunt is impressed by HBT's first theatrical offering of the year

Before I start this review I must point out that I remain unconvinced about the merits of Simon Stephens' Pornography as a play. With the 2005 London bombings at its very heart, it's a play which tackles enormous themes - rape, alcoholism, depression, incest, disaffected youth and domestic violence among others - but in such a ponderous, meandering and long-winded way as to be practically devoid of any tension, excitement, or, crucially, emotional weight. Put simply, Pornography would work very well as a novel (there's no denying the poetry of the language) but as a play feels self-indulgent.

However, director Hannah Brennan clearly wants this to be a subtle production and by and large this approach does reap dividends, particularly in the individual performances. Indeed, the performances that I found the most moving to watch were from those actors who attempted a subtler, quieter approach to the inherently dramatic material they had been given. Anna Feroldi in particular is just electric to watch, so controlled and tense that her eventual mental collapse is both startling and poignant, as it should be. Furthermore, she brings an impressive naturalism to the stage even in some of Stephens' wordier speeches and so remains, throughout, a believable, nuanced performer. Rory Barnes and Lily Morgan also had invariably excellent scenes together, and, despite a weak beginning, Barnes in particular perceptibly improved to reach a truly affecting conclusion as the production wore on. And although Meera Santiappillai's quiet and serene performance occasionally became inaudible in the deep recesses of Caedmon Hall and erred on the side of timidity, it was generally an intelligent, well thought-out characterisation.

To be honest, Caedmon Hall is the real problem here. I personally feel that the hall is a vastly overrated dramatic space - it works beautifully with huge ensemble casts wishing to present spectacular theatre, but for anything more small-scale just drowns the actors. Furthermore, the size of the hall means that actors have to project more than is natural to reach the audience. In this particular production this either meant that subtlety was maintained at the expense of audibility (both Feroldi and Santiappillai, among others, had moments where I had to strain to hear them), or characters were forced to enunciate and project almost over-carefully, effectively robbing their scenes of a true sense of intimacy and immersion. Gestures, too, were either lost entirely, or were necessarily exaggerated and therefore lost a sense of realism.
For the tech team too, Caedmon Hall presents its fair share of difficulties. The lighting, whilst it is suitable for a production aiming for this kind of subtlety, is just too dim to properly illuminate all the action in such a massive setting, and three hours in, the dullness of the spotlights becomes something of a strain on the audience (a headache is my enduring souvenir from second half). Brennan's attempt to create a sort of stage-within-a-stage, and so isolate the action, is laudable, but seems redundant since the actors still wander freely around the whole platform - and are forced to adapt otherwise generally understated performances accordingly. I realise that HBT have very little choice in terms of performance space but I think it's a shame that a play which can otherwise be commended for a sensitive treatment of very complex and emotional themes should be fundamentally let down by its setting.

However, I don't wish to undermine what Brennan and her team HAVE accomplished with Pornography, which is a production which, thanks to its strong cast and despite its non-too encouraging script and setting, is dark, intelligent, harrowing and emotional. There are certainly areas which need improvement, but the fundamental approach which Brennan has taken is well thought out and pleasing to watch - it's just a crying shame that such a talented group of actors were not able to better display their talents in a more suitable dramatic space.  

22 November 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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