Downstate at the National Theatre
Downstate is an agonising, desperate, gripping experience. Brought over from Chicago by the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Bruce Norris’s drama attempts a nuanced look at a topic traditionally handled with broad strokes and bold statements: the sexual abuse of children or, rather, the lives of said abusers after the fact.
Following an excruciating opening that sees the elderly, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan) haltingly confronted by one of his victims, Andy (Tim Hopper), the playwright presents his own dark take on The Odd Couple(s), with plenty of cohabitational bickering over the usual roommate disagreements. Dee (K Todd Freeman) and Gio (Glenn Davis) squabble over space, as Felix (Eddie Torres) sits quietly eating cereal and Fred plays peacemaker. It would be standard sitcom fodder if it weren’t for the intermittent reminders of the sexual crimes these men have committed, or the presence of their presiding PO Ivy (Celia Noble).
Norris isn’t just trying to shock – at least, not solely. Downstate is designed to make fully-rounded, recognisable human beings out of figures normally rendered as monsters or freaks, however unpalatable that might be. The writer is unflagging in his insistent search for complexity of character, and though this instinct can tip too far – namely Hopper’s tightly coiled, abused Andy, who is made overtly, if justifiably, aggressive as a way of muddying the moral waters – the overall impact is devastating.
It’s an exhausting watch, because the dramatist tries to encourage your empathy to be spread, if not equally, then more thoroughly than is normally asked of an audience. It raises questions of what we expect from our justice systems, and challenges the idea that time served can be considered as such. All this without ever shying away from what these men did; what they do (or do not) owe their victims; and the unimaginable, long-term psychological harm caused by their actions and refusal to fully grapple with what that means.
To watch an abuser and his victim try and talk about what happened, and to ache for both, is an extraordinary feat, one with which Norris is immensely aided by the production’s exemplary cast. From Davis’s loquacious Gio to Noble’s weary Ivy, the entire ensemble is exquisite. But Downstate is truly anchored by the men playing Andy, Fred and Dee.
You can see Hopper’s victim revert somewhat to the 12-year-old he was when he first met Guinan’s softly-spoken, seemingly gentle Fred, a dynamic of need that is responsible for the play’s tensest moments. And then, at the centre, is Freeman’s Dee. His impulse is to protect those he cares for and respond in anger and dismissal to those he doesn’t; it’s a delicate, humane portrayal of a kind man unrepentant about the crimes he has committed, one that repeatedly causes laughter to catch in the throat of those in attendance.
Image: Michael Brosilow
Downstate is at the National Theatre from 12th March until 27th April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.