I well remember when Jenni Fagan’s explosive debut, The Panopticon, first appeared in 2013. Asked to review it, I unusually read the novel in one-sitting, consumed by not just Fagan’s brilliantly evocative prose but the depth and strength of her central character, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks, who has spent all her life in the Scottish care system—a system she refuses to either let define her as a person, or grind her down.
Anna Russell-Martin holds our attention from the start as Anais.
Fagan has since published both a second novel (2016’s The Sunlight Pilgrims) and a poetry collection, but has returned to The Panopticon by adapting her own novel for this production by the National Theatre of Scotland. The result is, as literary adaptations go, a powerful, gripping and at times almost visually overwhelming experience, making particularly nightmarish use of Lewis den Hertog's video projections on Max Johns’ triangular-columned set. Yet it also highlights an imbalance that seemed far less significant in the original book: this is an ensemble production with an almost overwhelming star performer in its midst.
Anna Russell-Martin holds our attention from the start as Anais, the girl who survives as much by telling stories to herself: not least her “birthday game”, imagining herself a different life right from a different birth. Sooner or later, though, the reality of her actual situation impinges, explained in terms of “The Experiment” being conducted by mysterious, black suited men in bowler hats. They watch her, constantly, or so she believes, trying “to see how much the human spirit can endure before it breaks”. The result is that she neither trusts anyone around her or gives ground when challenged.
This has got her into trouble, of course; we meet her with just eight weeks before she’s old enough to leave care forever, but she’s on her last chance. Staff member Angus (Paul Tinto) – ex-biker gang, ex-soldier – wants to ensure she doesn’t go straight into adult jail, but the odds appear stacked against her, in part because of an alleged connection to an assault on a female police officer which left her in a coma. We’re not even sure whether or not Anais actually did it, given the two had “history” and she refuses to say either way.
Angus’s furious defence of Anais in court not-withstanding, there are few occasions when the ensemble cast circling around Russell-Martin’s central performance have anything like her depth or strength; their roles are necessarily less detailed and nuanced, although it’s fair to say that the range of characters remains impressive. Overall, however, you’ll leave the theatre thinking, perhaps rightly, of Anais: the young woman who, despite everything, genuinely convinces us that she’s a good person.