Pornography by Simon Stephens

It is ten years since Simon Stephens captured the chaos of London in 2005: within a few days London went from celebrating Live8 and the announcement that they would be hosting the 2012 Olympics, to the utter devastation of the 7/7 bombings. Londoners saw the extreme highs and lows of the abilities of human organisation. This inspired Stephens to pen Pornography and with the recent rise in terrorist attacks across the UK, it remains a fascinating glimpse at the motivation behind terrorism.

At the end, London is the enemy and it’s hard to tell if this is the intention of the text or the direction, but it leaves the audience feeling at a loss.

The play itself has no characters: only seven blocks of text that Stephens indicates can be read by any number of people in any order. This means that any production taking on the task of directing this piece has a lot of work to do to interpret it appropriately and make it fully coherent. Sadly the Lincoln Centre does not meet the mark of this high demand.

There are constant technical blunders: the cast wield very bright lights that are constantly shining into the audience’s eyes. There are also heavy-handed high pitched sounds, which are totally exhausted by about halfway through the performance. You keep seeing potential here that isn’t quite met: the choreography needs to be tighter, the movement smoother, the sound more varied, the lighting cues snappier.

A note must be made in admiration for the actors, especially Samantha Miles who contributes an incredible performance of anger and grief. There is a real tender moment when her character tries to reach out to a stranger. This is a stand out moment of real empathy for one of the characters. If this was more common, this show would have been vastly improved.

The acting, on the whole, is good – the issue comes from the direction of the play, which makes it so hard to follow. It feels as if this text has been mistranslated and necessary moments of context are left out. The emotions were so all over the place that moments that felt like they should have been shocking fail to shock at all, just whiplash from feeling to feeling.

Making art about public tragedy is a constant tightrope walk. When confronting national crisis one message should always be clear: people who do bad things are not monsters but real, human people. The bombers in the Lincoln Company could not have been less human: their lines are spoken in unison by the cast who are in shadow behind clothed screens. They are faceless, anonymous and characterless: there is no humanity, only a chorus line of almost robotic voices.

At the end, London is the enemy and it’s hard to tell if this is the intention of the text or the direction, but it leaves the audience feeling at a loss. It’s a city where everyone treats each other horribly, no one likes each other, and life is just meaninglessness punctuated by searches for “almond croissants” and “black coffees”. The performance left me with a headache from the lights and sound and with the questions – well then, if it’s so hellish and pointless why do people live there? What’s the point?

Reviews by Catherine Wilson

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The Blurb

Are you laughing or crying? Optimism to despair, euphoria to devastation, national celebration to a country in mourning. Four explosions, 52 casualties, an hour that changed Britain. Pornography offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of a London that went from the euphoria of Live 8 and the Olympics 2012 announcement to the devastation of the July 7th bombings. A play which examines what brings someone to a point of such desperation, Pornography is still as relevant 10 years on. What does it mean, post-Brexit, post-Trump? Marking the 10th anniversary of Stephens’s harrowing masterpiece.