Now playing at the National Theatre, Downstate is a National Theatre-Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-production written by the Pulitzer-winning Bruce Norris. It deals with the lives of four men convicted of sex crimes against minors forced to live together in a group home due to circumstances beyond their control. The show opens with one of the men being confronted by one of his victims, and dives deep into the pasts, crimes, and the present day to day challenges their crimes bring about to these men.
The play clearly aims to strike a balance between portraying these men as individuals, showing their unique personalities, and the differing extents of their crimes, and how they deal with their pasts – denial, shame, acknowledgement. For the most part, the play is successful in reaching this goal, as there is neither glorification of these horrific acts, nor an overwhelming sense of categorisation of them as dangerous criminals. This distinction, instead, is largely left up to the viewer.
Although the first half of the show was considerably less poignant and thought-provoking, it did a brilliant job of setting up a tone and planting seeds of additional storylines that could be swiftly brought to a conclusion by the end of the play. Throughout the 150-minute show, the characters, be they the victims, abusers, or the officer assigned to keep them in check, are intricately developed as interesting, multi-faceted individuals.
There is a particular moment near the end of the second act whose imminent arrival is built up to throughout the play. Although one might think the amount of not-at-all-subtle foreshadowing could have diminished the effect of the event on the audience, it has the exact opposite effect. The event is delivered with such an extreme (yet tastefully so) striking visual punch that the whole audience was visibly and audibly shaken.
This is where, in my opinion, Downstate differed from When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a previous National Theatre production staged in the Dorfman Theatre earlier in the year. Both plays were clearly written as provocative pieces. However, despite relying on shock factors here and there, Downstate succeeded in making this tasteful, not relying on gratuitously grotesque language and actions whose only intention was to instigate a reaction from the audience. This was obvious from the audience reactions on the way out of the Dorfman as well; I always enjoy eavesdropping on fellow theatregoers after plays to see how the show was received. While leaving Tortured, (at least those of us who hadn’t walked out halfway through), the overwhelming audience reaction was along the lines of ‘what did we just watch?’, and ‘did Cate Blanchett really just do that on stage?’, with very little discussion about what the play tried to portray, or what emotions it wanted to provoke. However, following Downstate, the audience seemed to be in an eager debate about these men’s lives, the way the justice system works, and whether we should be dealing with such crimes with different approaches. This, in my humble opinion, is provocation done right.
Although a strong piece from beginning to end, the strongest moments of the play were the quieter, more subtle moments that gave the audience a chance to breathe and take things in while greatly contributing to the development of individual characters. This was especially so with Kenneth Todd Freeman, who plays a homosexual middle-aged man in a supposedly loving relationship with an adolescent boy. Freeman brings warmth, sass and heart to the performance, and is the centre of many of the subtle, gorgeous moments, as well as the funnier, light-hearted moments which diffuse the tension in all the right places.
There isn’t very much to criticise about Downstate, although the ending sequence was a bit too long and one-note. This was a pity - it diffused the tension and the shock created earlier in the play, and added nothing much to the characters, the plot or the message to justify its dragging on.
Overall, Downstate is a brilliantly acted, thought provoking, poignant play that is guaranteed to spark a conversation surrounding the topic of choice on the way out of the theatre. While fully embracing the fact that the crimes in question are a horrifying problem within our societies, Norris does a commendable job into turning this play into a part of the conversation that needs to be actively had.