Downstate at the National Theatre: Challenging and Uncomfortable

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Downstate, produced with Steppenwolf and now playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National.

There cannot really be a witty opener when reviewing a show like Downstate. Bruce Norris’ new play is set in a group house in Illinois that is home to four men registered with charges of paedophilia. Never becoming a form of voyeurism, Norris explores over two hours the lives of these men and the impact of their actions on others whilst testing our own assumptions about the criminal system and what should be deemed as punishment. The worse part is that there are no obvious answers.

Downstate opens with Andy (Tim Hopper) confronting his abuser, Fred (Francis Guinan). Despite its content, Downstate explores a series of paired relationships: Gio (Glenn Davis), convicted of having sex with an underage girl, brings home Effie (Aimee Lou Wood), whilst Felix (Eddie Torres) has a prolonged exchange with Ivy (Cecilia Noble), the Peace Officer in charge of the building and who has caught Felix using a public library to log onto Facebook in an attempt to contact his daughter. It was his daughter whom Felix abused. Amidst all this is Dee (K Todd Freeman), who is visited by no one but is involved in everyone else’s business. Where Fred is sorry for his actions, Dee refuses to see the problem in his illicit relationship with a young actor who was playing one of the Lost Boys in a touring production of Peter Pan. 

Francis Guinean, K Todd Freeman and Tim Hopper in Downstate.

Unexpected moments of comedy punctuate this difficult play, but they are often deflated within a few lines. The shifts between humour and horror happen within seconds and the tableau of this likeable if dysfunctional group slowly unwinds. Noble is feeling the stresses of being overworked and professes the ‘sands of the hourglass of my life are slipping away’, but she retains a harsh exterior. Director Pam MacKinnon truly allows simple actions reveal nuggets of detail: Gio goes to put his shoes on, revealing the tagging bracelet around his ankle, whilst as Noble takes off her cardigan she reveals her gun and holster. These men may seem friendly, but never can we forget the atrocities they committed. 

The standout performance of Downstate is K Todd Freeman as Dee.

Todd Rosenthal’s impeccable design of a drab and tired house frames this image of a near-horrific domestic bliss. Fred states ‘It’s so nice to see you again, Andy’ as the latter leaves, and at which members of the audiences audibly gasp. Guinan imbues Fred with a casual, unproblematic naivete. Now, with a broken body, he is left to be served hot chocolate and eat biscuits in an unexpected reversion to the age of those he abused. Noble’s weariness contrasts well with Hopper’s angry search for the truth, with the latter seeking to understand not only more about Fred but also himself. The standout performance, however, comes from Freeman as Dee, whose camp cynicism slowly unravels as we learn more about his life. These are just four performances of a mesmerising ensemble.    

Across all the various productions I’ve seen at the National Theatre, Downstate has challenged my assumptions the most. Watching theatre should rarely be without its difficulties, but the content and characters of this play remind one of Medea, Macbeth and Hedda Gabler. Never have I been so engrossed and disgusted at the lives on stage, and from this my own assumptions about criminals and the system in which they exist have been challenged. Simply put, it’s extraordinary theatre. 

4.5/5

Downstate is at the National Theatre until the 27thApril, 2019.  

Photograph credit: Michael Brosilow.


Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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