S-27

Sarah Grochala
Lifeboat Theatre in association with Widsith
Finborough Theatre
(2009)

Publicity image

A prison photographer holds the baby of a desperate mother aloft, ready, she warns, to drop it and see it smash like a coconut. Members of a revolutionary army don't make for willing babysitters.

For a couple of tyrannical bruisers, May (Pippa Nixon) and her assistant June (Brook Kinsella), are a feline pair. They look like seasoned members of a health spa, sound like they run a chip-shop in Leyton and act, June particularly, like cocksure patriarchs. It is an odd characterization but one that demonstrates that the potential to behave inhumanly is a universal vulnerability.

Theatre that illuminates human cruelty and advocates justice begins with one foot on the podium. S-27 managed to get both feet on it when it won an Amnesty International award in 2007. Protecting the human - the ethos that underscores the Amnesty award - is incontestably a laudable initiative. S-27 reminds us that civil war is brutal; that revolutions are seldom glorious; that notions of crime are arbitrary; that dictation is dealt for dictation's sake; and that power, lodged as it ever must be in human hands, is liable to abuse.

Apt reminders, and ones that are acutely and often poetically rendered, but the play's 'protective' capacity suffers under its anonymity. Who or what is under attack here? Mugabe? Pol Pot? Communism? The human? A general culprit is a forgettable one. A punch landed on one nose draws more blood than a dozen frantic swings amid a crowd. That said, non-specificity allows an audience to draw myriad interpretations and connections. Swings and roundabouts.

It is May's moral oscillation that is most affecting. The sequence of prisoners that she photographs - all of whom wear the prisoner S-27 tag - destabilize her political resolve and scratch away at her idealism. Brutality, she comes to see, is inimical to progress. We see early on that May's portrayal of bullish authority is thin. She wrestles between her duty to the 'Organization', her receding compassion, and her beliefs in political equality.

May's tripod is visually significant. She frets and fidgets with it; hides behind its objectifying lens. She strives to render her suffering models into something inanimate, so her sorrow and guilt can be denied rein. Might this be a reference to Western media practices? At one point June remembers the foreign journalists who came to take photos of the child soldiers; Westerners in chinos snapping for glossy magazines; keen for more tragic novelties. These inferences owe much to Stephen Keyworth's insightful and astute direction, which prises questions from the text that aren't explicitly indicated by the author.

June, more so than May, seizes on power and revels in its pathology and performance - she is seen straddling her subordinates, pressing cigarettes against forearms, falling zealously for the illusion that human worth can be hierarchically organized. Unlike May, who attempts to escape the army with an old lover, June stands her ground, believing it a sounder policy to "to stick it out" - to commit atrocity so to survive it.

The action all takes place in an abandoned classroom: learning and development given over to torture and oppression. A school bell, with its echo of both innocence and regime, rings periodically. The floor is a mucky coloured lino. The walls, like humanity, are peeling and battered. There is a heavily bolted backdoor: a thriving threshold between two stages of abuse: imprisonment and extinction. A suspended light bulb (an excellent directorial addition) has a poetic and sinister presence: in this microcosmic world of realpolitik, enlightenment is suspended. Left to hang.

Until July 4th

Reviewer: Ben Aitken