Review: Downstate, National Theatre

Frequently shocking in its daring and detail, Bruce Norris’ Downstate is a tough watch at the National Theatre

As if life isn’t hard enough without us being deliberately hurtful and cruel to each other”

Yeesh! Bruce Norris’ Downstate arrives at the National Theatre as a co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and as you might expect from this award-winning agent provocateur, this play about paedophilia and rehabilitation is frequently shocking in its daring and detail.

Norris asks the question what should society do with those who have been found guilty of sex crimes against minors but having raised the unconscionable spectre of such people, proceeds to try and make us care for them, disaggregating the individual stories from the amorphous, horrific whole.

He sets Downstate in an Illinois group home where four registered sex offenders are trying to figure out what kind of life they can live in a society that reflexively abhors them. Their crimes differ, but so too do their conceptions of them, the rationalisations they have for their actions (often described in unsparing detail).

It makes for a truly challenging drama, especially as Norris layers in a vein of black comedy that really fucks with your headspace. It also blunts some of the razor-sharp incisiveness of the writing, particularly in the second act which is too bloated in its attempts to raise the stakes. Still, some stunning performances from the ever-reliable Cecilia Noble as a wearied probation officer, and K Todd Freeman and Francis Guinan as two of the more heinous offenders. Approach, but with caution.  

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Michael Brosilow
Downstate is booking at the National Theatre until 27th April

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