Finborough for Free: S-27 at Finborough Theatre
The macabre photographs of those massacred by the Khymer Rouge are now presented memorially in the killing centre of Tuol Sleng (now a museum to the Cambodian genocide). Sarah Grochala’s award-winning 2009 play (now free to watch online courtesy of Finborough Theatre) focuses on the person behind the camera, turning only slightly away from the victims. Inspired by the experiences of the Tuol Sleng’s actual prison photographer Nhem En, Grochala’s short play is a blunt, uncompromising snapshot from Cambodia’s darkest history.
May (Pippa Nixon) has sacrificed much for her country’s revolutionary moment. Tasked with taking photographs of those condemned for their traitorous, “counter-revolutionary” activities, she carries out her duty with cold efficiency. But is the begging, bargaining brutality and spiteful ambition of her underling June (Brooke Kinsella) starting to get to her? Is her steely success at survival starting to soften?
While designer Olivia Altaras’ cramped wedge of a stage leaves the audience in little doubt about the context (infamously, Tuol Sleng was a school repurposed into a killing site, which Altaras re-creates in detail), the cast’s prominent regional accents work to transplant the horrific event onto the London stage. This is an unsparing production that sustains a tensed stillness, only peaked by unflinchingly presented acts of cruelty, violence and despair. The musty, suffocating atmosphere is surprisingly enhanced by the grainy digital recording and lurching camerawork, granting an inelegant realness to the play.
Stephen Keyworth’s tightly controlled direction enables his cast to hold that tension until their inevitable breakdowns occur under Gary Bowman’s stark, ugly lighting. Nixon’s teary stare, often pleadingly directed at the audience, is especially haunting. The actors’ lesser moments of pent-up screaming don’t quite dent the play’s otherwise convincing, hard-hitting descent. Only a weak, obvious climax demeans the gruelling drama. Afraid of lingering in the nasty, brutish, confronting place she has made the audience inhabit, Grochala reaches for cheap sentiment to lift the audience out.
S-27 is a crude cut into this difficult subject-matter. But when successful, Grochala captures the perpetrator’s dissonant mindset, the internal struggle with dehumanisation, and the cost of self-preservation. It leaves an unsettlingly ambivalent impression of its subject, neither full condemnation nor sympathy.
Finborough for Free: S-27 is at Finborough Theatre from 1st December until 31st December 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.