Given that I may well be the last person to see Downstate, chances are you all know a lot about this production. You’ll know that it is set in a group home for registered sex offenders for crimes against minors in Illinois. You’ll also probably know that it is set in the present day – the #MeToo movement acting as a backdrop – and focuses on the central plot of a survivor of child abuse arriving out of the blue to confront the man who raped him when he was a kid. Chances are you’ll also be aware that this production is extremely good, opening as it did to four and five star reviews.
So, given that you know all this, why am I writing this review? Even more so given the fact that I didn’t see this on a press ticket. Well, I’ll tell you why.
Those who gave this a four star review don’t know what they are talking about. Downstate is five stars all the goddamn way. It is extraordinary. And it is extraordinary because every single element and nuance is perfect, from Bruce Norris’s writing to the fine Steppenwolf ensemble cast, and on to Pam MacKinnon’s subtle direction that gives space to the actors yet ensures the hits hit.
But more than this, it is extraordinary because it takes an impossible premise – the humanisation of child abusers – and lets the mass of opinions, facts, contradictions and complications of society vs. paedophiles unravel in front of us, never patronising us or steering us down any particular path.
And the result of this is that Downstate leaves you with never-ending questions about human behaviour. I couldn’t sleep the night after my head was so frenetically tearing itself up over the questions Downstate poses.
Like, why do we seek closure? Andy (Tim Hopper) is now a man in his 40s, married with kids, yet clearly still struggling to come to terms with the abuse he suffered as a kid. He turns up at the group home to confront Fred (Frances Guinan), his former piano teacher and abuser. Why? Why does he do this? Or rather why do we do this? And isn’t this dangerous? Doesn’t the demand for closure ensure that the other party still has a form of emotional control over you?
Then there’s closure itself. What does it look like? What does it feel like? And, in fact, when it comes to child abuse, isn’t closure simply retribution, or do we have it in ourselves for it to mean something else?
But as Bruce Norris clearly unpicks in the play, closure from a paedophile may well be impossible. These men are liars. They lie all the time; that’s how they operate. But, as Andy says, victims always tell the truth. They remember all the facts; they know what happened. And paedophiles lie.
But is this true?
What about the contradiction when paedophiles are survivors themselves? Do they both lie and tell the truth? Can these two traits exist simultaneously in the same person? And how do we feel when men we need to depict as monsters show compassion for each other?
Never once does Downstate downplay the seriousness of child rape in order to prioritise the debate. Nothing and no one are patronised or marginalised. Yet how on earth do we reconcile all the above?? And is there such a thing as an empirical truth where trauma and abuse is involved? Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. I don’t know. And that’s the brilliance of Downstate; it doesn’t know either. All it does is (magnificently) lay it out for us to wrestle with.
National Theatre, London, to April 27, 2019.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Michael Brosilow.