THEATRE REVIEW: Downstate ★★★★★
Dorfman Stage, National Theatre London
Tuesday 12th March - Saturday 27th April 2019
In co-production with Steppenwolf, based in Canada, Bruce Norris returns to the stage after the racial phenomenon that was Clybourne Park, to tackle the themes of sexual predators and offenders in this compelling, genuinely thought-provoking piece which poses the question of how we should treat such offenders as we dive into the lives in this production of four such beings who all live together in downstate Illinois.
At the top of the production we meet Andy (Tim Hopper), a victim of such abuse who has been left with long-term suffering and now is facing his perpetrator, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan), and instantly as an audience we are hooked as we can see just how much of a moment that has been building up to for Andy and his wife Em (Matilda Ziegler), who in the long-run does not appear in the performance as much as her husband but does leave a lasting effect with her stern force and stubborn tone towards her spouses abuser.
It’s a testament to Bruce Norris that then on top of this he introduces Dee, played viciously by the incredible K. Todd Freeman, who is the complete opposite to the more gentle Fred and confident, borderline cocky, Gio (Glenn Davis), whose storyline with employee Effie (Aimee Lou Wood) is pushed to the sideline and becomes almost forgettable in the long-run, but whose both performances excel and show that these abusers, finishing off with Felix (Eddie Thomes), a compulsive liar, are seen more as individuals rather than a group, as we hear and see bickering and differences of opinions throughout.
Todd Rosenthal’s surreal and naturalistic scenic design is so genuine and comforting that it makes the whole world in which we are seeing unraveled before our eyes fascinating and feels actually lived in, something rarely seen in theatre in recent times; the use of the kitchen and edible features enhance this further to create a stunning backdrop to a physically gut-wrenching piece were Norris is toying with our emotions and conflicting sides of who we feel remorse for, especially in a scene involving Felix pleaing with Probation Officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble), over internet search histories and his attempt to reconnect with his daughter. Without going any deeper, it is with this conversation that I found myself mentally judging what I felt towards the character of Felix as my emotions were being played with, until a moment where a sentence is muttered from one of the two opposing characters were all previous, uncertain judgements are aligned as the climax to this particular interaction comes to a unsettling close.
Overall, Downstate is a thrilling, gut-punching, powerful piece of theatre that I have not found myself winessing another unlike in a very long time. Bruce Norris has created an unsettling, often conflicting premise where we are left to come to terms with our feelings towards this often taboo subject matter and reevaluating our judgements, in a production which I truly believe will spark numerous conversations following its run at The National.