Having premiered at the Hamburg Festival in 2007, then later played in Edinburgh in 2008 before making its way to the Birmingham Rep theatre, Simon Stephen’s Pornography has finally reached the city at the heart of its gripping and terrifying story, playing at the Tricycle Theatre.
Playwright Simon Stephens wrote Pornography in October 2005 as a response to the terrorist attack that took place on the London transport network on Thursday 7 July. In that same week the 2012 Olympic bid was won, the G8 conference was taking place and as a response Live 8, a concert that Madonna promised could start a revolution, was held. Pornography is not just a response to the bombings, but also a reflection on that eventful week and the effect it had on the people living in the city that seemed to be at the epicentre of the world.
A group of seemingly unrelated characters fill the Tricycle stage, empty but for scattered TV sets flickering grey static and messy tube cables running across the ceiling. Mainly performing monologues addressed directly to the audience, the characters tell us of the happenings of their week in an orderless fashion, jumping from day to day, event to event.
A racist schoolboy, precocious and sharp-tongued, tells us of a crush on his teacher and the disappointment he feels towards a country not respecting his ‘Aryan rights’. A brother and sister give into their life-changing and destructive desires. A new mother, sleep-deprived and jittery with constant anxiety, self-destructs her career. A well-spoken woman peppers her language with expletives and hatred as she wanders through London alone. A divorced lecturer takes advantage of an old admirer who is not quite the naive student she once was.
And a man travels from Manchester to King’s Cross St Pancras, bright and seemingly carefree, with a rucksack containing a home made bomb on his back. Uncomfortably removed from the idea of the monster we would expect to be depicted, the playwright instead presents a disconcertingly calm and considered man, as he explains his plan step-by-step and describes the country rushing by beyond the train window.
Stephens casts no moral assertions on any of the characters, each of whom are flawed and often unlikeable as the events of the week affect each person differently and provoke a different opinion of the city they exist in. This way of dealing with the characters is highly effective as each member of the audience is left to make their own judgements, although the silent disgust for the terrorist and collective grief at the terrifying and tragic conclusion can hardly be ignored.
Stephen’s play not only offers an observant glimpse into the lives of a fictional, but sometimes all too familiar, group of Londoners, it also highlights the absurdities of the city, with its vast and often anonymous population only ever coming together, whether through tragedy or joy, for the briefest of moments.