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Bruce Norris’ Downstate at the National Theatre, London – review round-up

Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman in Downstate at the National Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman in Downstate at the National Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow
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American playwright Bruce Norris’ 2010 work Clybourne Park was a certified sensation. Written as a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, it is one of only two plays (the other is David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross) to win the Tony and Olivier awards for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Now, Norris is back with Downstate, a co-production between the National Theatre and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company that arrives at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre after running across the pond last autumn. It’s there until April 22, in a production directed by Tony award winner Pam MacKinnon.

With Clybourne Park, Norris explored race relations in America with dexterity and a daring wit, earning himself a reputation as a provocative, playful writer capable of hilariously exposing hypocrisy.

But does he cement that reputation with Downstate? Or does this transatlantic transfer fall flat on British soil? What do the critics make of this latest provocation from one of America’s most prominent playwrights?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Downstate – Uncomfortable questions

Cecilia Noble, ensemble member K Todd Freeman and Eddie Torres in Downstate. Photo: Michael Brosilow
Cecilia Noble, ensemble member K Todd Freeman and Eddie Torres in Downstate. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Downstate is set in a home in Illinois inhabited by four men convicted of sex offences against minors. Over two and a half hours, Norris explores issues of sympathy, guilt, punishment and revenge, and for some critics, he does so brilliantly.

“Downstate fulfils art’s profound function of making you look and think hard about complex, difficult moral issues that society has a tendency of solving with superficial solutions,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★). “It is not a comfortable evening, but it is a vital one.”

It “puts a match under the knee-jerk public discourse commonly surrounding the judicial treatment of sex offenders, and asks us to think again,” chimes Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★★), while Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★) calls Norris “the current most urgent provocateur of American theatre”.

Others, though, aren’t so sure. For Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★) some moments “feel intolerably grim for the sake of it” and others “feel too contrived”, while for Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★) everything is “too pat” and “obviously contrived”.

Most critics fall somewhere in between. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) calls Downstate “a smart, acutely funny, important piece of work which challenges our never-ending Medieval thirst for revenge”, and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) labels it “a very, very knotty drama which takes a deeply ambivalent but ultimately sensitive look at the lives and motivations of its four sex-offender protagonists”.

“Norris raises all kinds of key questions about how far society’s punitive approach should go,” adds Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), while Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) admires how “Norris makes us confront not the headlines, but the men themselves”.

Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) praises Norris’ “cunning and insight” and Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★★) calls Downstate a “beautiful and wounding” play. “The result is an uncomfortable experience, flecked with humour but bleak and haunting,” concludes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “It raises deeply awkward questions about revenge, revulsion and forgiveness.”

Downstate – Pitch-Perfect Performances

K Todd Freeman in Downstate at the National Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow
K Todd Freeman in Downstate. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is renowned worldwide for the quality of its casts, and Downstate is no different. Several performances in the eight-strong cast of Pam MacKinnon’s production are widely lauded by the critics.

Tony-nominated K Todd Freeman plays Dee, an ex-actor who once raped a teenage boy during a touring production of Peter Pan. He is “astonishing” according to Crompton, “striking” according to Billington, and “fascinatingly volatile” according to Hitchings.

“Dee’s nice line in sass is sometimes outrageously off-beam and, while you can never warm to him, Freeman’s performance does elicit some sympathy,” writes Cavendish. “He brilliantly captures a combination of outward toughness and a vulnerability so troubling you can hardly bear to contemplate his headspace.”

Francis Guinan also impresses as the wheelchair-bound Fred. He’s “outstanding” for Billington, “superb” for Taylor, and for Hitchings, he finds “a perfect mix of guileless candour and wheedling creepiness”.

“One minute, Fred the aged, wheelchair-using, arthritic piano teacher is just a sweet old man,” expands Bano. “The next, he is subtly trying to refocus the victimhood on to himself, even as he faces the guy he abused.”

Cecilia Noble, who plays the four men’s probation officer, is also widely applauded. She’s “world-weary” and “heart-wrenching” according to Allfree, “patient, but visibly reaching the end of her tether” according to Bano, and “tough as nails, but with a heart” according to Treneman.

Most critics concur that there is no weak link here. “As with all Steppenwolf shows, there is a visceral power to the performances,” opines Billington, while Taylor writes that “the acting is excellent throughout” and Crompton concludes that “the entire ensemble is magnificent, provoking empathy and revulsion by split-second turns”.

Actor Cecilia Noble: ‘Preparation is everything because then you can fly’

Downstate – Superb Steppenwolf staging

Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman in Downstate at the National Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow
Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman in Downstate. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Director Pam MacKinnon is the artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. She was nominated for a Tony award for her direction of the Broadway production of Norris’ Clybourne Park in 2012, and won in 2013 for her revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Apart from Cavendish, who observes an “unevenness of tone”, her work here is almost universally recognised by the critics. Bano praises her for painting “a pall over the whole production of sick, stale sadness”, while Allfree calls her staging “blisteringly good” and Wolf reckons that MacKinnon “ensures that the beats land, large and small.”

“MacKinnon’s staging, which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in October 2018 in a co-production with the National, is at once intense as required, yet also spellbindingly ordinary,” writes Shenton. “And that’s what makes it all the more extraordinary. It feels utterly real.”

“MacKinnon directs a play that unfolds, most of the time, in an entirely natural way,” describes Treneman. “The set, by Todd Rosenthal, is classic suburban sitcom: a front room with a kitchen at the back, and loads of doors to slam.”

“Thanks to Pam MacKinnon’s tightly wrought production, on Todd Rosenthal’s tone-perfect set, you can hear a pin drop for most of the evening – except when you are laughing in shock, or reeling in surprise,” adds Crompton. “Downstate is an astonishing piece of writing and is performed with the kind of intensity and naturalistic detail that is acting of the very finest, deepest kind.”

Downstate – Is it any good?

Tim Hopper, Aimee Lou Wood and ensemble member Glenn Davis in Downstate. Photo: Michael Brosilow
Tim Hopper, Aimee Lou Wood and ensemble member Glenn Davis in Downstate. Photo: Michael Brosilow

The reviews aren’t excellent across the board – both Tim Bano in The Stage and Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times have real reservations about Norris’ play – but a rack of four-star write-ups and two five-star ratings, from Sarah Crompton on WhatsOnStage and Claire Allfree in Metro, ensure there are enough stars to call Downstate a success.

Most critics reckon Norris’ new play is a sensitive, provocative exploration of crime and punishment, and everyone acknowledges that Pam MacKinnon’s skilful Steppenwolf production is impeccably acted.

After the critical flop of Admissions last week, here’s an American import with a bite as potent as its bite.

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