The complexities of the justice system in the UK and America have been a keen focus for playwrights in recent times, and while in theory the trial-sentence-release process ensures that perpetrators are punished for the requisite time depending on their crime, in practice it can be a far more emotive experience. While the Young Vic’s high-quality dramas Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Jumper Factory have give us an insight into the different pressures of prison life, what happens next can be even more difficult when an offender is released back into the community. James Graham showed us in Quiz that Charles Ingram’s family suffered continual abuse and even attacks on their pets just for allegedly cheating on a game show, but if your crime is far more serious that, is justice ever really served?
Co-produced by the National Theatre, Bruce Norris’s Downstate premiered in the US last autumn and now makes its UK debut in the Dorfman. What looks like a normal suburban house is the transitional location for a group of sex offenders who have served their sentences and are now part of a phased release programme. All four of them have convictions for paedophilic activity, the nuances of which, during the course of this 2.5-hour show, the audience learns more about, while understanding the effect this has had on their lives. Catalysed by a confrontation with one of their (now adult) victims, Downstate consistently shifts our sympathies, asking difficult questions about the appropriateness of penalties meted out by the legal system, if there really is a sliding-scale of heinous acts and whether we should try to see the humanity within those who commit them.
At the heart of this play is a concern that no punishment will ever be enough, that whatever the crime – but especially with the serious offences under discussion here – the effect on the victim is far greater than any legal redress, a question playwrights have grappled with for a long time. Shakespeare essentially wrote about this 400 years ago when his Merchant of Venice anti-hero demanded a “pound of flesh”, a revenge theme that has resonated through subsequent crime dramas down the centuries. In Downstate, this manifests in two ways, first in the seemingly cosy existence of the four men in a nice house that in relation to their crimes initially causes the audience to recoil, and second through the character of Andy, a “survivor” whose life has been enduringly affected, who demands to be heard when his abuser is unexpectedly released into this environment.
Norris has chosen the quite traditional domestic setting and structure that is so prevalent in American drama, steering away from the David Mamet-like spare prose and focus on masculinity, that owes much to the hard-boiled simplicity of film noir dialogue, which is a more usual frame for male-centric plays. Downstate instead offers a discursive drama about a dysfunctional homestead, with a feeling of Tracy Letts in the creation of a pseudo-family battling external intrusions. Its fascinating subject-matter makes for several compelling duologues as characters spar with each other and reality, asking the audience to consider whether some crimes are absolute or if there are gradations of guilt and repentance that should offer the chance of rehabilitation. But Norris’s dramatic structure yields few surprises, and is, arguably, rather formulaic – although in performance this is less of a negative that it sounds.
While a major revelation at the end of part two is pretty easy to guess, signalled as it is rather too obviously at the start of the Act, each ex-offender, as you might expect, is given the opportunity to tell and occasionally justify his story. While The Jumper Factory purposefully withheld the nature of the protagonist crime, and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train retained some ambiguity about the guilt of its lead character, there is still much to take from Norris’s concept, particularly the apparent remorselessness of the men in the house, or at least the feeling that they have made peace with their past, served their sentence and moved on.
To explore this idea we are given two particularly compelling character-driven discussions that dominate each Act to dig deep into the thought processes and behaviour of the men in the house. Our sympathies and allegiances are intriguingly tested as Parole Officer Ivy (a superb and chilling Cecilia Noble fresh from her scene-stealing performance in Nine Night) confronts silent housemate Felix (Eddie Torres) who, thus far, has kept himself to himself, quietly eating cereal in his room and trying to stay out of sight. It’s a revelatory conversation that twists and turns brilliantly as Ivy questions Felix on his GPS tracking data that proves he had transgressed the boundaries of his freedom.
As the evidence is presented coldly to Felix, initially you feel for him a small struggle for a moment of liberation and desire to be close to his family that becomes quite affecting. What happens in the next 10-minutes is remarkable drama as Noble’s Ivy plays ace after ace shifting our perspective on the truth and eventually the shocking nature of Felix’s original crime. Torres is excellent in his big moment, suggesting a conviction in the early moments of this discussion that starts to win you round, while delivering some well-timed emotional reactions that reveal his desperate fear and underlying failure to recognise and control his own responses.
In Act Two, this is mirrored in a confrontation between Andy, Fred and Dee which is equally dramatic, a stew of conflicting information and interactions that pushes the audience to see things from every side. The erupting rage of Tim Hopper’s Andy as he is compelled to confront Fred is balanced by the ordinary domesticity of their lodgings and the calm, easy interactions between the housemates. There is a brief period of reminiscence between abuser and victim as they talk fondly of Fred’s piano lessons, a golden age before the predatory teacher made his move. Norris hints that Andy had his own problematic family from which Fred became a welcome respite but also implies an unsevered connection between the men, that Hopper uses in his performance to show the hold of Fred’s charisma despite himself.
As the discussion loops around and Andy pushes to regain his ground, his encounter with Dee is designed to bruise and confound. And seen from a purely theatrical perspective Norris builds the drama well to reveal a level of delusion that affects them all, both men convinced that his perspective is the truth. K Todd Freeman’s Dee, a former theatre Dance Captain with a devotion to Diane Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, is perhaps Downstate’s most unknowingly tragic creation, grown caustic and cynical by time but with a softer heart beneath. He manages the household while caring for the wheelchair-bound Fred yet refuses to believe his own crime is akin to those around him, Nor does he accept that Andy’s desire for purification as anything less than indulgent weakness. The discussion is compellingly written and performed even if Norris’s approach to playing one truth against the other, and Andy’s exposure feel uncomfortable.
The latter is one of the most challenging aspects of Norris’s play, not so much for the content (although there is graphic anatomical description in the second half as part of a legal document) but for the way in which the writer challenges our perspective on “victimhood”, forcing us to wonder, uncomfortably, who is behaving reasonably in this context. The way in which Andy’s testimony is presented is almost clinical as he tries to read a prepared statement to former piano teacher Fred at the start of the play. It is a recitation of facts delivered with subdued emotion, an outline of events and their consequences presented, at this stage, as a formality that masks Andy’s deeper pain.
It is only later, when Andy fails to feel the catharsis he craves, that he returns in Act Two for a second, more explosive, confrontation that draws the home’s “matriarch” Dee into the conversation. And it is here where Norris’s approach becomes much harder to reconcile as Andy angrily demands Fred takes ownership of the hurt that he feels and the broken consequences of his life by signing a legal confession of culpability that outlines the specific acts committed. Yet, Norris has spent the intervening hour opening out the lifestyle and personalities of the household to us, showing them as a group of now quite vulnerable men trying to survive within ever chastening boundaries that casts Andy’s outburst in a slightly different light, making it seem hysterical and perhaps even, inappropriate.
As the tension rises in what is an increasingly fraught interchange between the three men, Dee accuses Andy of being obsessed, of refusing to move on from something that happened more than 30-years before and drawing on his own childhood trauma to suggest Andy’s essential weakness. It is a tough conversation to stomach with Norris’s point being that cause and effect is never as straightforward as it looks and behaviour patterns have many origins, yet the facts of Andy’s abuse are never in question so this unpicking of an undisputed victim’s story feels particularly problematic and even unnecessarily cruel. While Dee’s own viewpoint is shown to be potentially delusional at other points in the play, this inability to build-up the humanity of the perpetrators without tearing down their victims is something Downstate never satisfactorily resolves, and it leaves a bitter after taste.
This is reinforced by the play’s final character, Gio (Glenn Davis), the youngest of the group, on a 15-month transition for the statutory rape of a girl he thought was 17. Davis’s performance continually distances Gio from the other inhabitants, his arrogance causing spikey clashes with Dee as the men wrangle over the seriousness of their offences. While you might admire the character’s determination that one mistake won’t prevent him from building a future as a business owner, he too is unrepentant, claiming himself the victim of unfortunate circumstances ensnared by a woman he suggests has gone on to teenage pregnancy and notoriety, which, like Andy, turns the tables on the victim with a purpose that never feels entirely clear.
Whether the crimes of these men are absolutely the same or relative is an impossible question, you see their humanity in Norris’s writing and while in theory they have served their time, even in this theatrical hypothetical scenario the group’s lack of remorse muddies the waters considerably. With excellent performances there are some really engrossing moments that tackle difficult questions about justice head-on, yet, the undermining of victim statements and personalities, however delusional the perpetrator, is never properly justified by Downstate’s discursive approach. Whether rehabilitation is truly possible for such serious crimes,Norris never really decides, leaving only a dramatically engaging but morally troubling outcome.