The July 2005 London bombings may not have had the same physical and emotional impact as 9/11, but it was a moment when the British capital took a similar intake of breath. With 52 dead and 700 injured plus the four suicide bombers, the city came to a standstill, forming a new chapter in the West’s unfolding narrative on terrorism. This is the setting for Simon Stephens’ “Pornography,” but despite the provocative title and literally explosive subject matter, his play is a cool exercise in the mundane. By presenting tableaux of ordinary London lives, the playwright dares to suggest the atrocity was an everyday part of alienated city life.
This sentiment is not immediately apparent, but rather makes itself felt through the absence of high drama. Although one of the bombers tells his story, journeying to London by train from Leeds, carefully following the pre-arranged plan, we don’t hear an explosion or see the trauma of the dead and wounded.
Stephens’ observation, we deduce, is that this radicalized Muslim father is as much a part of the social fabric as the various other characters on stage. If anything, he is the most sympathetic figure, a man worrying about the details of his journey much like any harassed commuter.
By steadfastly refusing to demonize him, to reduce him to a caricature of hate, the playwright compels us to see him in a more complex context.
That context, in a script written without named characters, is a society quietly at odds with itself. In their domestic scale and sense of transgression, the tales could be from a soap opera, although there is nothing televisual in helmer Sean Holmes’ presentation, with its open, industrial staging in which characters share the same space.
There is the lecturer who makes a clumsy attempt to seduce a former student in his apartment. There are the newly re-united brother and sister locked in an incestuous passion. There is the loud-mouthed school boy with a racist worldview and a Hitler fixation. And there is the retired academic who has grown so used to her own company she is freaked out by a doorstep exchange with a delivery man.
All have become dislocated from civic society, placing the values of the individual — the white supremacist, the sexual predator, the taboo-breaking lover and the recluse — above a belief in the greater good of mankind.
Infused through this, bubbling up in occasional remarks, is the idea of pornography, a symbol of personal desire divorced from social context. Stephens provides no big speeches on the subject, but suggests pornography has become a normal part of an atomized post-industrial culture.
It would be possible to deduce from this that the playwright believes the bombers’ violence was justified because of their distaste for a decadent culture. His point is more subtle, however. By presenting the bomber alongside the other characters, he suggests all of them are alienated from their fellow citizens in different ways. The bomber is a symptom not a cause of a greater malaise, a social breakdown that affects everyone.
The scale of his crime is, of course, of a much greater magnitude, but by taking the crime out of the equation, Stephens lets us see it not as something extraordinary and inexplicable, but as something rooted within the culture. It’s a contentious proposition, the boldness of which creeps up on you only after the everyday tales have come to an end.