ARE there some crimes so heinous that punishment for them must never end? Even after death? Downstate is a play about forgiveness — an unsettling, engrossing, and awkwardly entertaining play about forgiveness. I was gripped.
Bruce Norris has followed up his award-laden play about poisonous race relations, Clybourne Park, with an equally disturbing piece about four paedophiles living together in a church-owned house in Illinois after they have served their sentences. They are on a sex offenders’ register (accessible on the internet to anyone under US law), tagged, the target of missiles, and forbidden from using social media or venturing near any location where children gather.
The story is driven by the visit of one of their victims, the tormented Andy (Tim Hopper). He has come to seek a letter of apology from Fred — gently spoken, avuncular, and in a wheelchair since a fellow-prisoner took retribution into his own hands (Francis Guinan). There is a profound moral complexity to the way in which their meeting plays out. Andy has been traumatised. But Norris dares to present sex offenders as individuals who have feelings, guilt, and hopes. The audience is defied not to feel compassion, until a new revelation of some terrible event changes the dynamic again.
The other characters are sweary, Bible-spouting Gio (Glenn Davies), Felix, a feeble wreck of a man (Eddie Torres), and Dee, who denies that his past crimes are anything but love. Dee is played by K. Todd Freeman with a petulant elegance. He has the funniest lines (“the job market is somewhat limited for the elderly, black, gay, ex-offender community”), and he alone is allowed a moment of genuine self-understanding at the play’s close. The men’s supervising police officer is Ivy, longing to be sympathetic, but worn into weariness by lies and claims of victimhood (Cecilia Noble, confirming here that she is one of Britain’s finest actors).
This co-production between the National Theatre and Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf Company is directed by Pam MacKinnon. She builds a visceral force in the performances — act two provokes a deep silence in an audience conflicted by such finely balanced questions of justice. When violence is finally unleashed, it is genuinely shocking, and, once again, all the wrong people are victims.
At the curtain call, the audience stood. (This is unusual at the National Theatre.) Twenty minutes later in the bar, people were discussing the issues with strangers. This is an outstanding play about real pain and an impossible quandary for society. It offers no solutions, but forces us to reject dehumanising answers.
Downstate runs at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, until 27 April. Book tickets at nationaltheatre.org.uk or by phoning 020 7452 3000.