” A masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy”
Shows are a lot like types of friendship. Some primarily uplift you; they wrap you up in a distancing blanket from what’s actually out there, or distract you from what can’t be escapes. Others are more of an intellectual affair, where the value comes from what you can glean. A working partnership, maybe, as much as acquaintanceship. Some are good, some are fine, and some you cannot wait to forget.
The Panopticon is a singular type of play: it’s like having a witty, irreverent friend who also spontaneously beats the shit out of you. It’s cool, you agreed to it, and honestly there’s a lot of heart and soul in the neverending chest-stamping and throat-chopping, but nonetheless beaten ye shall be. The Panopticon is a masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy, an important artwork – but if the content warnings plastered around the Traverse Lobby don’t tip you off, it’s not welcome territory for a frail disposition.
The premise of the story is easy to ramp into: a young girl named Anais is put into a home built in the shell of a disused panopticon: a prison wherein all prisoners may be seen from a central tower, and never know if they’re being watched. It becomes a damned succinct example of ‘setting-as-overall-metaphor’, and sets up a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and disorientating lows centred around the lives of the troubled and shunned, and the tragedy of a loveless childhood.
The star of the show, both literally and performatively, is Anna Russell-Martin as Anais: an acerbic, highly troubled young woman for whom the lines between reality and psychosis are not so much blurred as violently shaken together. Russel-Martin offers a masterclass performance in the title role: running the gamut from charming and rambunctious to devastated to utterly destroyed, whilst still maintaining rock-solid continuity of character. Anyone who’s been to a few theatre productions has likely seen grief, rage and joy played out – when watching Russel-Martin, it’s like seeing them for the first time.
Beyond the easy classification of “who is the main character”, the ensemble cast is both a blessing and a curse: a group of performers so uniformly talented that it makes picking a starting point incredibly difficult. Do you start with Laura Lovemore, whose attention to consistent physicality not only makes every one of her characters distinct, but wholly individual? Kay McAllister, who portrays beauty of spirit and acidic tragedy like an angel in a crack den? The wonderfully afflicted bravado and uncertainty of Louise McMenemy’s Shortie, the edge-of-unsettling vibrancy and humanity of Lawrence-Hodgson Mulling’s John, the kaleidoscope-esque multiplicity of Martin Donaghy. There’s simply too much good to unpick here without it turning into a bullet-pointed gush list, but suffice to say, they’re an ensemble cast dream team. Wholly professional, wholly consistent and an absolute joy to watch.
I would be remiss, however, not to highlight my two favourite performers: Gail Watson and Paul Tinto. Tinto, rugged yet approachable, almost singlehandedly carries the light of optimism for the majority of the show with a charisma and earthy crunch that turns what could easily have been a trying, one-note archetype into what may be one of the show’s more understatedly complex roles. And Gail Watson. Gail Watson! Chameleons would weep and don monochrome jackets out of shame. No matter the demands of the myriad parts she plays, each is done with nuance. Personality. Although Eddie Murphy’s Norbit may have traumatised me away from films where one actor plays every part, if Gail Watson were headlining? I might be persuaded to invest in the necessary therapy to enjoy it.
These players would be delight enough on their own, but when cast into sets as well designed and dramatic as those created by the incredibly talented stage team, it only serves to elevate. Not only are they clever to the point of enviousness, they are (much like everything from the lighting to the sound ops) integrated to the point of seamlessness. It’s very much like watching a morbid dollhouse play itself to pieces: a rare treat to watch though perhaps, given the subject matters, not a constant delight. The team behind The Panopticon commit entirely to the concept of theatre as illusion-making, and the results are wonderfully encapsulating.
Of course, perfection is theoretical, and this production proves that fact. Though the viscerality of the acting cannot be denied, the fight choreography felt too floaty and impactless for most of the violent scenes to carry home the needed drama. And although the digitally projected visuals were inspired, oftentimes they felt more like a palate-cleanser to cut the drama rather than an off-angle surprise to elevate it. This is less of an issue with, say, the visualization of the mental sensation of an orgasm, but is fairly noticeable on the subject of psychotic dreams.
It feels prescient to state here that, if you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a show that flinches when it comes to deeply upsetting events. The plot features things that would certainly warrant thorough show research and consideration for anyone with prior trauma, and even if you don’t, make sure not to go on a bad day. It’s a white hot furnace of dismay, but it forges something deeply important and meticulously well performed.
It might be the darkest show I’ve reviewed for Edinburgh49 yet, but it’s a shining star on the theatrical horizon.
Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 11 October)