Writer: Penelope Skinner
Director: Amy Hodge
Reviewer: John Kennedy
Sharing similarities with the oppressive dystopian State versus the rebellious heroine tropes of The Crucible, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games, Penelope Skinner’s unnamed Scandinavian setting is a post-conflict police/priest state mandated by ultra-orthodox Christian dogma. All are answerable to The Disciples. Thought-crimes of the soul – blasphemy – are punishable by stoning to death.
The young Irene, an incandescent presence from Shvorne Marks, and her conformist, guilt-hysterical friend, Anna (Scarlette Brookes) are the Apocrypha-quoting indoctrinated children of The Reformation. Their friendship will be tested beyond capacity when Irene is put on trial for blasphemy for singing Song Number 1 in a coffee-house; it is about her fractious relationship with an anonymous man. She confides to her defence counsel Gudrun (Amanda Wright), whose initial authoritative compass and trial-savvy wisdom become more unsettlingly ambiguous, that theirs has been an unconsummated adultery – a capital offence in itself.
Events take place in a confined, modular cell, lent discordant intensity through rapid, snatched black-out scene transitions. As her trial progresses (there is no exposition) Irene begins to garner international ‘likes’ and messages of support as her song goes viral. The seeming ambivalence of a dictatorial theocracy allowing such a volatile medium of free speech as Facebook, to exist impacts on the implications of the play’s contemporary context and, equally, on how Skinner’s crafting will manipulate this plot device to further drive the incremental tension and bring credible climax. She manages both convincingly.
The Regime becomes existentially anxious that Irene might become a martyr figure because of the global human-rights protests. All she has to do is sign a simple confession on live TV: an auto-da-fé she discovers that has a catastrophic caveat. It becomes evident that both Anna and Gudrun have their own agendas – possibly Gudrun is manipulating Irene towards martyrdom to rally the cause for a counter-revolution, while Anna condemns herself through pious confession to sins more grave than her jealous soul can contain. Though a variation on an eternal theme, this is an accomplished, intelligent work: insinuating, relevant and provoking, tautly written, produced and performed. A counter-religious polemic certainly – however aspirational it might be in trying to teach old dogmas new tricks. Irene’s climactic soliloquy to the power of love has an epiphanic, Joan Of Arc intensity, her sacrificial white surplus drenched in near blinding white light.
Penelope Skinner’s conceit of an authoritarian regime that allows social media freedom of expression might seem counter-intuitive but it just allows it to reach its inevitable betrayal. The meek feel they ought to inherit the Earth; the altruistic strongly believe they can change it. As with Mae Holland in David Egger’s The Circle, let this be a warning to the curious – be careful what you ‘Like’. ‘The humble and meek are thirsting for blood.’ (Joe Orton)
Runs Until 8 September 2018 | Image: Helen Murray