In a cultural mood where there’s a surge of interest in listening to previously-silenced voices, Bruce Norris’s Downstate is a paradoxical thing. It both makes an argument for why we should listen to the voices of sex offenders, and shows the dangers of doing so. It airs views that take you to some twisted, disturbing, uncomfortable places (places where abusive relationships with children are reframed as love affairs) but it’s also made with a surprising amount of warmth for the people who express them. I’m still not sure if it’s the ‘right’ way of staging the ideas it’s talking about, but it’s also so full of tortured moral ambiguities that it basically argues that there’s no such thing as ‘right’ anyway.
At one point in Downstate, the four-strong group of convicted paedophiles at the story’s centre discuss ideas of justice. Is it linear? Crime—>Punishment? Or is it something a bit more complex? They reference ‘Arc of Justice’, the bestselling story of Ossian Sweet, an African-American man who climbs from poverty by becoming a doctor, and moves to a white middle-class neighbourhood, only to be persecuted, and to lose everything after a racist attack. It’s characteristic of these men’s worldview that they identify themselves with the victim of a crime, not with the perpetrator. But there’s also a germ of truth in the notion that to them, justice is not just a curved line but a cruel, neverending loop of victimhood and retribution. And it’s an idea that translates into the heavily wrought, circular structure of Downstate, which consistently wriggles and curves away from offering an absolute definition of ideas of guilt, responsibility, and free will.
Everyone in Downstate thinks they’re a victim of something, and in a sense they’re all right. Pam MacKinnon’s stunningly realistic, consistently well-acted production unveils the humanity of four convicted paedophiles living in a claustrophobic group home in Illinois, kept away from the wider world and watched closely by the US’s dystopian criminal justice system. These men are being stamped on by a state that monitors their every move via GPS. And, as gradually emerges from the conversations – they’ve also been stamped on by abusive or neglectful families, structural racism, and violent vengeance for crimes they committed decades ago. They’re the most eloquent, urbane, well-read, witty, charismatic crop of sex offenders you could ever hope to meet. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe a level of persuasive charm is a prerequisite for their crimes: which involve both luring children into sexual situations, and lies so fluent that they warp the reality around them, convincing both themselves and the people around them that what they’re doing comes from a place of love.
Norris’s play falls into a trap that’s pretty unavoidable. Villains are often more interesting, more fascinatingly flawed, than ‘normal’ people who are hurt by them. But his play’s structure also makes that trap’s jagged mechanical teeth visible. Andy (Tim Hopper) is thrown into this story to make some plot happen, to make the group home’s four occupants snap into life. He turns up on his abuser Fred’s doorstep as part of a therapeutic process that feels impossibly ill-conceived. In the first act, he visits the group home to read a letter where he tells his assailant about the impact of his actions, in a stumbling reading that’s met with bluff geniality and endless cheery interruptions of offers of coffee.
It’s an effective moment that captures a horrible truth: pain isn’t objective. Encounters that caused Andy decades of suffering made almost no emotional dent in his abusive piano teacher Fred’s trajectory. Andy is obsessed by the idea of making Fred feel what he felt, but that’s impossible on this earth (hence Andy’s growing obsession with hell, and its potential for more metaphysically advanced tortures). And it also shows that victimhood can become a defensive shell: when Andy’s testimony is doubted, his whole sense of his own identity crumbles.
The first act shows how these four convicted paedophiles’ capacity to lie and manipulate is cloaked by their utter appealing ordinariness. The second act tries to show how they’ve been punished, and what they’ve suffered – and in doing so, it breaks with the close realism of the play to date, in a way that feels desperately laboured. You know that feeling when you see a weirdly elaborate set element and think: oh, that’s got to frame some kind of gruesome big reveal? Well, that. And what started as an intriguing exploration of victimhood and identity collapses into reactionary bluntness: Andy screaming ‘I’m a victim’ while he literally punches the white-haired, frail Fred out of his powerchair. It’s an image that expresses the impossibility of him ever getting the recognition or vengeance he needs, but it also undermines his own suffering. Yes, we get it: everyone’s a victim here.
And, simultaneously, they’re most definitely not. I do worry that there’s a level of old-school ‘snowflake’-fearing distaste shooting through Downstate, aimed at anyone who’s gauche enough to admit they’re suffering, rather than just manfully bearing up: Dee, played by a fascinating-to-watch K Todd Freeman, is endlessly charismatic, whether he’s dancing to jazz greats, evangelising about movie musicals, or shrugging off the abuse he suffered as a child like it’s last season’s coat.
To me, Downstate feels too long because it’s so static. It’s worked over and circular and only shoved-in plot devices can make it go. But it also feels long because it’s stressful to watch: as soon as you think there’s some system of morality at play here, any wider message, everything you know about this fragile bungalow-community is undermined or turned on its head. This effort, this work, made me think about how our own principles and belief systems play into our response to theatre; about the relaxed feeling that comes from having your worldview confirmed, one which is consistently denied here.
The lines between depicting horrendous behaviour and excusing it become blurred and then redrawn with each fresh decade. Centuries-worth of moralists and censors have believed that airing the voices of wrongdoers will corrupt the public, and I don’t believe that, but there’s also a power in whose perspective is allowed to dominate.
Where Downstate fails, for me, is in giving its eloquent paedophiles too much of the floor, and making the lone victim’s voice weak and uneloquent. But what I like about it is that Norris is unafraid to create a horrendous moral mess and let you look at it. He doesn’t quite let you know what he wants you to think about any of these people. He certainly doesn’t let you know if he thinks there’s a better way. For a play that’s all about justice, it’s all completely amoral. And I oddly respect him for that.
Downstate is on at National Theatre until 27th April. More info and tickets here.