The objectification of humanity seeps out in Pornography, British playwright Simon Stephens’ edgy drama about the 2005 underground bombings in London, the week that preceded and the devastation that ensued. Pornography follows the lives of seven characters during that fateful week in July as they struggle with their own moralities, their stories intertwining with one another.
The play touches on taboo topics such as incest, racism, sexual assault and borderline mental illness while still teetering on the edge of normalcy. Sex is used as a tool of erotic angst and abnormality throughout, leaving the audience writhing in their seats as if they themselves are participating in pornographic acts by watching the grimy truths of each character unfold. Main characters remain unnamed, which makes metaphoric sense.
Pornography eloquently captures the emotional undercurrent of a nation jubilant at the prospect of hosting the 2012 Olympics, only to be marred hours later by a terrorist attack that would hold the world’s attention. The mention of technology – specifically the commonality of iPods – arises several times, offering seemingly sleight-of-hand commentary on society’s dependency upon technology, similar to their dependency upon a railway system. “Images of hell, they are silent” pervades throughout Pornography, capturing the gritty turmoil facing each of the main characters. The dislocation and detachment from normal interaction is a brilliant social commentary of what it means to be British and human in general. Moments of dark, satirical humor dot the otherwise morose and explicit dialogue.
Burning Coals’ cozy black box theatre provides the perfect peephole into the world of Pornography. Set design is minimal but brilliant, offering visual perspective and allowing the cast’s performances to command the stage. Painted on the backdrop are clean, simple lines mirroring that of the underground subway system, which transcend into what appears to be the crooked bleeding lines of a human heart.
Pornography faces a few inconsistencies with prop usage and character performances, but the instances are minimal and overshadowed by the overall themes of the play. Several characters wear black masks on their head at times, symbolizing anonymity as well as the perversion and objectification of treating humans as “things.” Just as prostitutes and particular sexual acts are objectified, so too did the London bombers objectify their own people.
The 52 victims that perished during the London bombings are paid homage in Pornography, which Stephens does tastefully and without delving into controversy or an attempt to comment on morality. The dead are treated as individuals with unique life stories, not as a mass casualty that can be grouped into a simple sum number. It is here that Pornography departs from the alienation of human civility and vulgarity that otherwise envelops the play.
This edgy drama is not for the easily offended, so take heed. Pornography runs now through May 8 at Burning Coal Theatre.
Review by Lauren Brown
Pornography is co-produced by The Distillery and Burning Coal Theatre Company more