Poena 5X1, or How I Came To Agree With Right-Wing Thinking

Wed 3rd – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Becky Wilson

at 22:49 on 8th Aug 2016

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A deeply unpleasant, jarring soundscape is cut off abruptly as a harsh spotlight glares on our protagonist. Her gaze penetrates the audience for a moment before she takes a breath, and embarks on the strangest, darkest monologue I’ve ever heard. This is the opening of ‘Poena 5X1, or How I came to Agree With Right-Wing Thinking’, a one-woman show which, though offering very little in the means of coherence, provides more than enough intensity to compensate.

Cathy Conneff, as Bryony Adams, speaks unrelentingly for an hour. It is unclear who she is talking to: although her unsettling stare never wanders from the audience, at points she appears to be standing trial, and at other points delivering a presentation to equally complicit work colleagues. Adams is a scientist, who has developed the ominous drug Poena 5X1 for the government. It is designed to punish criminals, by ‘boiling the brain’. Although loosely toying with interesting ethical questions of punishment versus rehabilitation, consent and politics, this play verges off randomly onto other completely unconnected topics before exploring them in any depth. This leaves the show with an overriding sense of hollowness.

Adams is an extremely difficult part, and Conneff doesn’t quite manage to fill her shoes. Largely, she delivers the script’s violence (“the subject is part of the wolf pack, devouring himself”) with an intimidating gravity, and by the play’s conclusion her performance has developed to an absolutely chilling level of intensity. But this is only half of Adams’ character. The intimate, confessional interludes in this play, which is largely concerned with government-sponsored torture, strike me as very out-of-place, and they are made even more uncomfortable with Conneff’s struggles to connect emotionally with the audience. Revealing intimate details about her love life, and repeatedly mentioning her preference for red wine over white, her tone is fake and empty, her mannerisms, like reaching for a glass of water or tying back a strand of hair, are over-rehearsed and don’t ring remotely true.

‘Poena 5X1’ has a fascinating, disturbing premise and huge amounts of potential. But, partially due to shortfalls in the script, and partly due to Conneff’s inability to encapsulate Adams’ character, it feels hollow and unfinished.

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Toby Clyde

at 16:40 on 10th Aug 2016

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‘Profit appeals to the simple’ we are told, but this production certainly does not. ‘Poena 5X1’ is complex meditation on modern ethical paradox, of love and justice promised and packaged by the powerful. Though placed on the shoulders of single actor, the show is written thick with ideas, and wrapped in a narrative that exudes intrigue and drama. Yet almost like the ethical dilemmas it professes to explore, the end effect is strangely tangled: compelling but cold.

This story is just about contained by the fragile persona of young scientist Bryony Adams, played with great poise by Cathy Conneff, whose narrative weaves together the political and personal into a noir plot of sex and power. She has developed a new drug, the perfect ‘liberal hell’ to punish and rehabilitate the overcrowded prison system, but is forced to extremes as her once grand idealism is exploited for profit. At times a kind of lecture, at others a testimonial and a confession, it is delivered with great, or often a carefully masked, feeling.

There is an undeniably palpable atmosphere of claustrophobia and pressure as Bryony appeals to the silent inquisition of audience members that surrounds her. Really though, the credit is all Tarik O’Regan’s as his soundscapes shape the tensions of the play. Reminiscent of the dystopian digital accompaniment to Channel 4s Utopia it rises and falls with an awful intensity, hinting at the grant machinations of government and the justice system that enclose Bryony.

The skilled craftsmanship that underpins the play comes out even more in the wonderful eloquence of Abbie Spallen’s writing. It is endlessly quotable, as this review already attests, and where you would expect the straight delivery of the play to come into it’s own. The production even has a slide show that deliberately fails to work, leaving us alone with the clipped vowels and branching sentences of Bryony.

Yet the immediate and emotional impact of Poena’s grand themes, its dark plot, and the dramatic final twist is strangely absent. As enjoyable and engrossing as the performance was, it left me longing for a chance just to pour over the script myself. In such a complex and fascinating exploration of morality and profit the contradiction of this play is not in its ethics but its impersonality.

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