Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of the National's DOWNSTATE?
In a co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris' fiery, provocative new play Downstate, comes to the NT direct from its debut at Steppenwolf, Chicago.
In downstate Illinois, four men convicted of sex crimes against minors share a group home where they live out their lives in the shadow of the offences they committed. A man shows up to confront his childhood abuser - but does he want closure or retribution? Downstate zeroes in on the limits of our compassion and what happens when society deems anyone beyond forgiveness.
Directed by Tony Award® winner Pam MacKinnon, the American and British cast includes Steppenwolf ensemble members Glenn Davis, K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan and Tim Hopper, together with Aimee Lou Wood, Cecilia Noble, Eddie Torresand Matilda Ziegler. With set design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Adam Silverman and sound design by Carolyn Downing.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Marianka Swain, BroadwayWorld: A superb cast, directed by Pam MacKinnon, adds texture to Norris's piece. Francis Guinan's Fred is fascinatingly ambiguous; is his golly-gosh-darn folksiness and seeming vulnerability really just a cover for a "fundamentally evil" person, as Andy insists? Fred's repeated anecdote about Chopin falling in love with the "wrong" person seems telling, as do details like him calling both Andy and fellow victim Tommy "special".
Ann Treneman, The Times: There are quite a few laughs here amid the pain and anger, but be warned: I was gripped by this play and I wouldn't want to go again
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard: Norris pinpoints the narcissism that's a characteristic of so many abusers, yet is willing to picture them as humans - flawed, pitiful and three-dimensional. The result is an uncomfortable experience, flecked with humour but bleak and haunting. It raises deeply awkward questions about revenge, revulsion and forgiveness.
Ben Lawrence, The Telegraph: As the febrile atmosphere caused by the documentary Leaving Neverland still lingers, here is a play about paedophilia that will simultaneously outrage us and prompt us to ask searching questions about how we should treat the perpetrators. The result is not simply some bleeding-heart plea for tolerance, but a smart, acutely funny, important piece of work which challenges our never-ending Medieval thirst for revenge.
Michael Billington, The Guardian: As with all Steppenwolf shows, there is a visceral power to the performances under Pam MacKinnon's direction. Francis Guinan is outstanding as Fred, showing how his earlier attraction to young boys has turned him into a childlike elder content to play Chopin on an electric keyboard. K Todd Freeman is equally striking as Dee, who retains an air of showbiz camp while retreating into misanthropy. Meanwhile, Glenn Davis as Gio and Eddie Torres as Felix, wildly at odds in their misdemeanours, are united in using religion as a form of protection. Arguably the most sympathetic character is the probation officer whom Cecilia Noble endows with the weariness that comes from a lifetime of overwork, and, although I found Andy hard to believe, Tim Hopper plays him with a traumatised fervour.
Paul Taylor, The Independent: Bruce Norris's studiedly provocative play (which is mounted now in the National's mordantly well-acted co-production, directed by Pam McKinnon, with Chicago's ace Steppenwolf Company) plunges us into the purgatory of the post-prison paedophile. One foresees indignant letters from people who feel that focusing on such people with clear eyes is an abuse of compassion. Norris's play is not easy to sit through (given the contentious subject, it would be bizarre if it were) but that's not because it virtue-signals a bleeding heart liberalism. Far from it: any potentially clammy sequences are wryly, wrenchingly subverted.
Tim Bano, The Stage: Set in a group home for registered sex offenders, there is barely a moment in Downstate that is not hideously, gut-twistingly gripping. It is mostly very well written, extraordinarily well acted and skilfully directed by Pam MacKinnon, who paints a pall over the whole production of sick, stale sadness. And yet some moments feel intolerably grim for the sake of it.
Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut: If Norris humanises these men, that's only because they are human, and to understand they're human is to understand they are products of our society, that we can't just give up on them. Norris doesn't ask us to have empathy, but he does make a case for sympathy.
Johnny Fox, The Londonist: Breathtaking, brave and brilliantly acted, Downstate is a landmark play. It's listed as a 'collaboration' between NT and Steppenwolf, but the Chicago company's prints are all over this glistening weapon. Sometimes a play is just arrestingly good.
Mark Shenton, London Theatre: Pam 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. And that's what makes it all the more extraordinary. It feels utterly real. The effortlessly naturalistic Anglo-American cast is both gritty and generous, with particularly striking work from Guinan and Hopper as the perpetrator and victim we meet, Glenn Davis, Eddie Torres and K Todd Freeman as the other residents of the house, and Cecilia Noble as their parole officer.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow