The Panopticon – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: Jenni Fagan

Director: Debbie Hannan

Panopticon: noun. A historical building, most often a windowed prison turning in on itself, allowing a sense of visual connection. The inhabitants are on view at all times. Never really themselves, their thoughts the only thing kept apart from their keepers. It is also the titular building in which Jenni Fagan’s 2012 book primarily takes place.

A piece refraining from vanity, self-reflective but attempting to stray from auto-biographical, there will always be a sense of ownership. Rather than force ideals of characters, roles or stereotypes, Fagan’s text allows these performers the ability to inhabit their part. In moments Fagan’s writing is self-evident, clear and emotionally obvious. Other times, more interpretative, particularly for ‘the experiment’, a warped creature of dark mass and teeth is given shape by video designer Lewis den Hertog. Whose connotations may vary, playing on the nuances of the care system, refusing to make it a clear-cut statement. Layering itself, The Panopticon has breakneck pacing at times, which whips you into a standstill with a single word, scene or character – such as central character Anais.

No recollection of her birth mother, her adoptive one stabbed in the bathroom as she watched cartoons, Anais has spent her life shuffled around a care system that wishes to check boxes, avoid paperwork, but ultimately keep her safe. Amplifying the necessity of friendship in these situations, The Panopticon houses choice characters who will help, hinder and merely exist in Anais’ journey. Bluntly, Anna Russell-Martin excels in capturing a system she did not choose to be in, but one which will echo throughout her life. Her range is bewildering in the schizophrenic lunges between attitude and vulnerability. It’s an enrapturing performance which maintains a steady involvement throughout the lengthy runtime. A counterculture daughter of a cigarillo queen, Russel-Martin is a remnant of anarchic attitude in sailor shorts.

In this intense situation, bonds are formed in the unlikeliest of circumstance. Fights, bursts of raw aggression can be an outlet of passion, frustration and necessity, but they birth connections. None more so than with Isla and Shortie, brilliantly played by Kay McAllister and Louise McMenemy. Understating her role, McAllister is integral to the development of the stomach-churning plot, while Gail Watson as Joan, among many ensemble pieces, balances with a richly cut humour with her aghast reactions, accents and physical delivery.

If it feels as though the first act is pulling punches, it seems a ploy to lure a false sense of security for the devastation of the second act. Even those for whom theatre exposes humanities’ cruellest actions, no staging, writing or performance can capture the devastations lain before us – though Fagan comes closer than other playwrights and is among the champions in a series of female creators like Meghan Tyler who refuse to sugar-coat or apologise for their publications and intent. There is a richness in her ability to tell a story, yet place it secondary to the people. These young women, boys and girl in care, hell, in prison, are a priority, something director Debbie Hannon matches.

Adapting The Panopticon for the stage, there is a difficulty in conveying a sense of ‘nanny state’, a constant watching eye in the structure of the young institution. A series of prisms, spinning in succession where scene changes will shift location, Max John’s design is superbly methodical, both in management and conception. Working as a narrative device, it’s also a tool of symbolism. These high-rising walls, containing children, secrets, violence and adoration – they see everything the others do not.

One or two performance cannot maintain pace with Russel-Martin or McAllister. Never wholly detracting, it just stands to show how easy it can be to shift from such ferocious emotions or momentum. Fagan’s piece is challenging, spitting directly into the eye of a statistical obsessed experiment, tying people down for decades. A visceral, earthy drama which pulsates long after leaving the theatre. Just as the system’s taint will remain on those who shuffle through its watchful eye. Bloody, bold and fierce, it is a masterful reversal of The Panopticon itself, no longer looking into but staring straight back out.

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic