Features Published 3 December 2014

Oh Pomona

Our writers attempt to unpick why it is that the Orange Tree's production of Alistair McDowall's Pomona has got under everyone's skin.
Exeunt Staff

Catherine Love: What really got my pulse racing about Pomona was its refusal to settle down into one identifiable shape. Part of that is the intertwining of game and reality, truth and fiction, which are tangled together in endlessly mind-itching ways. But it’s also to do with how play and production mash-up genres and even art forms, effortlessly splicing in pop cultural references. Or, more accurately, it feels as though Pomona has been sculpted from the fag ends of collective culture, made out of all this stuff we just have lying around at the edges of our consciousness. It’s horrific and stomach-churning and properly fucking dark, but also full of humour and compassion. It’s fantastical yet contains at its festering heart an awful truth. When we walked out, my companion said to me “I’m not quite sure what we just watched,” and that’s what’s so brilliant about it. 

Nicole Serratore: I’m probably going to be the dissenter in this conversation but perhaps because everyone had prepared me for something electric I kept waiting to have my genitals electrocuted by the play. When there was nary a jolt, I wondered what I was missing.  Ultimately, I loved the design aesthetic and having it take place in a literal sewer with all these characters circling the drain. Having Zeppo as the constant observer and the cast hang out about the fringes of the room almost all of the time kept the gritty, paranoia of the piece present. And did so in a nice lo-fi surveillance state way without an emphasis on technology that seems a little overdone on stage these days. In fact I think that’s why I liked the use of D&D too.  Back to human on human story and games. And there was a childlike humanity in the midst of all this darkness–a craving for simple things–a friend, someone to trust, an ally. And that for me was the play’s greatest strength. 

But then I had a nagging feeling about the play. Did we need a dystopian plot where reproductive violence against women is an “easy” shorthand for horror? Particularly in a piece where the male characters seemed substantially more fleshed out than the female characters. It might not have chafed so much had I felt that aspect of the plot added up to more for me.  If I had felt the play make a statement about this or take a perspective.  Or something. With the circular nature of the play, I wanted to have that moment like when the vacuum cleaner cord zips back into the vacuum….you race through your memories of the play and suddenly all the little facts and details click into a new focus and you want to start the play all over again immediately to see how it adds up.

Instead I left puzzled but without that immediate curiosity to pour back through the story and see how this twist was laid out.  My brain slowed and I was left with a heavy darkness I could not shake off. So the play was not uneffective. But it didn’t leave me with the excitement that others felt. But then again I didn’t feel particularly keen on my first Philip Ridley play either.

Lauren Mooney:  Personally, I don’t see that reveal as being an “easy shorthand for horror” – to me, it’s supposed to be the very worst thing, the most awful thing you can imagine, not just tossed off lightly. Because they already have a terrible theory that doesn’t stop them doing those jobs, but the reality is even worse, and it’s hard to sell the idea that everything terrible is real, that everything is WORSE than you imagine without having something genuinely hideous at the bottom of the pile, or the end of that sentence. But I don’t know, I can see how it’s a horror particularly aimed at women and if the gender politics bother you in something, that’s it, they bother you; it’s not like you can switch off that part of your brain when you’re watching something.

Luckily for me, I didn’t take issue with any of the gender stuff in this. If anything, I have to say, I liked how McDowall wrote the women here, and the fact that although two of his lead female characters were prostitutes, he managed to write about prostitution in a way that felt realistic without being maudlin or moralising. Fay in particular felt like a fascinatingly layered character to me – I love when women are permitted by a writer to be scared and brave at the same time. When we first see her, she’s freaking out, but she’s smart and courageous and in the end she puts herself at risk to do the things that need to get done. I’m so sick of that Strong Woman trend in fiction at the moment where for female characters to be heroes, they have to have basically no emotions at all.

I find it hard to articulate what it was about Pomona that I loved so much. I guess it’s partly that, like Utopia (which it’s been compared to a few times and which I also bloody love), it created a very complete-feeling world, a heightened, horrible, Technicolour version of the everyday that unsettled me. Pomona is like a funhouse mirror, it’s like a song being played off-key, it’s all recognisable but ever so slightly wrong, and I adore that. I caught myself telling somebody the other day that I’d never seen anything like it before, then had to add ‘on stage’. It just feels like theatre that isn’t afraid to scoop up the things it likes about everything else, and to me that seems like the best way to keep theatre alive and kicking.

PomonaDuncan Gates: I completely agree that the magpie-like feeling of influences coming from all over the place was wonderfully dizzying, a bit like a dream where you both perceive everything as being genuine whilst at the same time having an instinct that it isn’t.The challenge with that is to maintain the ‘off-ness’ whilst still making the audience feel like it’s a world they could stumble into, and for me that didn’t really work. There were probably two reasons for that: firstly, the reveal of what was happening felt disappointingly generic, borrowed from ‘Taken’ or something similar. Obviously it’s still horrible, but I couldn’t see how this fitted in with the mythicism – it felt like an ‘effort’ on the writer’s part to introduce something gritty and realistic, when I’d felt primed for something monstrously pointless and unhinged.

The other reason is the ending itself. It was altogether too neat, and had the effect for me of shutting me out of the world, pulling the rug in a disappointing way, not all that far short of ‘it was all a dream’.

This was a shame because Moe’s story in the play is probably my favourite that I’ve seen all year. Sean Rigby was terrific, really well-directed, like a spiritually disappointed bloke from a Mike Leigh film who’d accidentally got a job with a chaos god, but was so disappointed with himself that he didn’t feel he deserved any better. By comparison, the other characters were a bit mannered for me, largely in service of a plot that was a bit more Byzantine and complex than it really needed to be.

I probably sound a bit negative about it, but that’s only because the high points (Zeppo’s opening monologue, Moe and Fay’s encounter) were so utterly thrilling.

Mary Halton: I knew the second I laid eyes on that mask that this was something I wanted to go and see. I’m looking at it now on my wall where I’ve stuck the flyer, that’s how much I loved the design. But similarly to Lauren, I can’t really put my finger on what it was about Pomona that did it for me. The fact that several of the people I really trust when they say “drop everything and see this” had done just that definitely helped, but I think if I were to zero in on one particular aspect it would be that it was theatre speaking my own language. I’ve learned the language of theatre over the years, and I genuinely love it now, but it rarely to never comes to the place where I grew up – to Lovecraft and Poe and Twin Peaks and the scattered elements of the creepy fringes of popular culture. Theatre’s much more willing to venture into moral and social terror, or downright make-you-jump scares, than to create a thriller with this kind of tension and uncertainty, that tickles at the edge of your awareness without you fully understanding why everything just feels a bit… wrong. I find theatre much prefers to let us know why we’re scared.

To a certain degree, Pomona says fuck all that. And while, yes, I was disappointed with the actual reveal of what was going on (you’ve clearly watched the X-Files, well done), the fact that this was because I spent the majority of the play expecting Cthulhu himself to burst up through that drain is a testament to the atmosphere that McDowall built. I would have loved some more ambiguity, because it’s always what you can’t see that terrifies you the most, and I’m rather certain that everything I was imagining in that underground layer was more spine chilling than what we got, but it actually didn’t matter in the moment. Which is unusual for me – but this is a piece that doesn’t really give you time to pause and I enjoyed being carried along by that. I allowed myself to be carried along by that, which is a rarity; just surrendering.

I also thought that it was a neat narrative flip – the suggested protagonist (Ollie) was actually quite peripheral and it was everyone else that she met along the way who felt real and desperate and aching and somehow worth saving. I had presumed this was intentional and thought it clever, but perhaps not. Ollie functioned in the way that all of these characters would have done in any other play – incidental, a device, the mechanism by which the story was told. I didn’t care what happened to her but Fay, oh god, I held my breath for Fay.

pom-3Stewart Pringle: Well, obviously I loved it. I think I said it was my play of the year, and though in lots of ways I think Bartlett’s Charles III was better, and Men in the Cities and This Is How We Die had more of an immediate impact, I’d stand by that. I think it’s a fascinating play about the omnipresence of evil, and I agree with Lauren that one of its greatest strengths is its catholicity of influences.

However, since the show’s initial dust-cloud has settled a little, I do acknowledge a few reservations about it too. A few people have told me they found it cold, and I’d be inclined to agree with that. I think it’s impact is more of the head than of the heart, and other than Fay’s story – which I think is sensitively drawn and very much the emotional core of the play – it’s quite an austere kind of world. Certainly compared to McDowall’s earlier work. Brilliant Adventures has that same eye-widening vista of influences and references, with its story of a pair of impoverished brothers in a northern council flat, one of whom happens to have invented a time machine, and it also plays with surprising flips into violence and horror, but there the story moved across the bonds of filial love and family.There was a quirky optimism to Brilliant Adventures that rarely shines through in Pomona.

In many ways it feels like the result of a shifting in McDowall’s influences – where Brilliant Adventures was informed by and felt like the successor to the domestic dramas of Philip Ridley – horrific, vertigo-inducing, but with a warmth that radiates against the nightmare, Pomona sees Ridley unseated by Simon Stephens. It’s a shift in focus, from the emotional realities of family life and relationships to a grander and more explicitly moralistic concern with good and evil. It’s a movement which has reaped obvious rewards for McDowall. It’s given him the perfect answer to the difficult second album question (with Captain Amazing the obligatory fan-favourite EP) and absolutely affirmed his position as the most exciting new-ish playwright in town. But I’m not rushing out to see it again, or to pull the script down from my shelf, and I don’t think that’s just because the Orange Tree’s in Richmond and my shelf’s all the way over there.

Tim Bano: My friend’s immediate response was that she felt cheated by the idea, like Duncan said, that it was all a dream. But I’m not sure it was as simple as all that. The narrative seemed to be both reality AND a game of Dungeons and Dragons simultaneously. Gameplay and reality became indistinguishable. Like the brilliant episode of Community Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in which the roles the characters are playing in the show become impossible to separate from the roles they are playing in the game.

Mary’s point about theatre teaching lessons, about its need to moralise, to tell us why we’re scared, strikes a real chord with me, so I looked hard for that moralising message after watching Pomona. And what I made out was that it is a comment on the slippage between fantasy and reality, as gameplay becomes more and more realistic (think of Oculus Rift), as fictional devices increasingly bleed into the real world (like the desire since Star Trek, essentially, to have little wrist devices you can talk into or all those scientists in labs trying to work out whether it’s possible to teleport) or the Large Hadron Collider or Interstellar. Science fiction becomes more and more of a fact, fantasy starts bleeding into reality.

And I too was underwhelmed by the reveal, but I think it was always going to be disappointing. It’s a grim fact that I’m pretty inured to gruesomeness. My idea of gentle Sunday night viewing is at least a triple murder. But building up the possibility of something horrific going on underground created a tension that was more gratifying than the explanation. Suspense hits much harder than a reveal. Never show us what’s under the bed. It will only let us down.

Annegret Marten: I don’t quite understand the hang-up about the big reveal. The red herrings throughout already hinted at a deranged oppressive practice that was kept going by people not meddling and not getting involved (never was an opening monologue so defining for a play as it is here). The actuality of the sadistic progression feels so ephemeral. It’s not like it didn’t matter but almost like it was the most suitable crime to counterbalance the strong women who decide to get to the bottom of the horror. Alistair McDowall chips away at the urban thriller genre and paints in women with agency who are not exclusively victims.

What’s really at the centre of the play is a moral issue about taking on responsibility, but it is twisted up in this narrative structure which loops around the characters. Or rather explodes into little pieces of shrapnel that are embedded within the flesh of the story and within the bodies of the players. The game being played here is one of asking the right questions. You have to step up to the plate and take on responsibility even if there’s no guarantee you’ll be rewarded for it. Not just for your own actions but for the world around you and for all the dark and twisted things you can see in it.

Cause and effect are an illusion and Mary’s suggestion that Ollie was not the protagonist is very relevant. None of us are the protagonists in this world. It’s just this messy thing that’s happening all around and we can decide to get involved or not. This the only way I can make sense of the game metaphor which is so much more than that because it’s not something you can detract from the whole, it’s not an added comment or a parable. On that game level Pomona works in a way that Rosenberg and Requardt’s The Roof tried but failed with even more shrapnels buried into the play’s texture. I never doubted whether the story was real just because we flipped back to the game at the end. The dead are watching from heaven looking down on the world they shat and jizzed on. That’s all they did, pretending to be three wise monkeys and hiding behind a chain of command.

Stewart Pringle’s review of Pomona

Duncan Gates’s review of Pomona (Things That Are Not There)

The Making of the Mask: creating the face of Pomona.

Pomona is at the Orange Tree until 13th December 2014


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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