Review: Downstate, National Theatre

Downstate, Bruce Norris’ new play, takes place in a group home in Illinois. The residents are Fred (Francis Guinan), Dee (K Todd Freeman), Gio (Glenn Davis) and Felix (Eddie Torres). The four live uncomfortably in confined quarters. They have all been convicted of sex crimes against minors. They vary in “Levels” from One to Three (the higher the number the more heinous the crime). The action primarily revolves around Fred, and him being confronted by a man, Andy (Tim Hopper), who was abused by Fred when he was 12-years-old.

Norris’ characters are so complex, so richly individual. They’re extremely hard to read, they fit no stereotypes. Gio maintains that he, a Level One, is innocent, after sleeping with a girl he allegedly didn’t know was underage. He’s articulate but loud-mouthed, and is annoyingly pious. He also uses misogynistic language, makes stomach-churning claims such as “any man who says he doesn’t find adolescent girls attractive is a liar”, and questions why he can’t urinate in public when women can breastfeed. Torres as Felix is quiet, and also very religious, carrying a bible and eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch in his room. They, like the other two men, are complex portraits of a human being.

Freeman as Dee stands out as the ageing Level Three theatre lover. His offence was coercing a 14-year-old boy into a ‘relationship’ while both were in a touring production of Peter Pan. He’s witty, caring, and has an air of grace and flamboyance. There are also some abhorrent lines that come from Dee’s mouth, excusing himself and his acts, and accusing Andy of enjoying the horrific abuse he endured. He says things that are hard to hear. They’re repulsive, repugnant, but he “didn’t choose to be this way”. He too has a story, he was also a child once, and he was also abused. Downstate presents us with the full story, gives us all the facts, and then asks us how it is that we should deal with people like Dee.

Under Pam McKinnon’s direction, the cast together put on the most engrossing play I’ve seen in a long time. Olivier award-nominated Cecilia Noble thankfully injects a large dose of sanity as the group’s overworked and exhausted parole officer, while Gaunin is genteel and bumbling as Fred. In a motorised wheelchair, he eerily talks like Winnie the Pooh and plays Chopin all day. Hopper plays Andy initially with restraint, but after returning to see Fred again (without his wife in tow) he becomes more manic, pacing around slightly hysterically, which I think may be an unfair portrayal of a survivor of abuse.

Downstate has been described as “controversial”, and I can absolutely see why. But when discussing something so terrible, it is easy to label the people that commit these crimes as inhuman, or monstrous. And they may be just that now, but were they always? This is what Norris’ incredibly nuanced play asks. It poses a plethora of tough questions, such as: How can we prevent this from happening? And what exactly do we do with the people that do it? Downstate leaves us to decide.

Downstate is playing until 27 April. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.